Sultans of Ping

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 back.

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 – September 17th, 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

 

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”

 

Mick O’Dwyer is a former Teenage Punk, who now works as a librarian in the European Parliamentary Research Service in Brussels, and the Forgotten Zine Archive in Dublin

 

Toasted Special

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, some of the smartest and freshest new bands in Ireland emerged far from the Dublin archdiocese and, in many cases, in direct defiance of it’s strictures. Zesty acts like Therapy ?, The Frank And Walters, The Cranberries, Engine Alley, They Do It With Mirrors, The I.R.S. and The Sultans Of Ping F.C. were among the most prominent of this number who, spotting many of the lifeguards off on the free beer, went head-first into the deep end and free-styled through the lengths. And the quality and regional spread of the line-up that played the Cork Rock event at Sir Henry’s in June, 1991, reflects just how urgent some of the music from that period was.

Not to be out-done by the locals, Toasted Heretic played a mighty, swaggering set that weekend and, as I wrote in my Hot Press review at the time, left a real impression ;- they were cut apart from the pack on many levels but, from their base in Galway, the extent of their ingenuity really gave them an edge. They were the first emerging Irish band I’d encountered who had such a clear sense of their own worth – Power Of Dreams would later be another – and they were unrelentingly stubborn with it. Most of what they did was very strictly on their own terms and often, I think, this just intimidated people.

Few bands so absolutely divided opinion among Ireland’s indie-loving set quite like Toasted Heretic did during the years between 1988 and 1994 and the source of much of that disdain was Julian Gough, the band’s singer and lyricist who, with his fey ways and lethal gob, refused to engage with fools. At least one London-based record company boss had Julian’s contact details filed in his personal organiser under ‘Julian Cockhead’ and this just made me love them even more.

Boasting, among their meaty catalogue, the greatest New Year song of all time – ‘Here Comes The New Year’ [‘Here comes the new year, oh no, not again. I’ve been playing ‘Ziggy’ with my friends’], Toasted Heretic were the first band in my eye-line who convinced me that, in an industry that was quietly evolving, everything and anything was possible. If, using a primitive four-track recorder in a student garret in Galway city, they could produce a record as beguiling as ‘Songs For Swinging Celibates’, then I really wanted what they were having. It was their self-sufficiency that showed many of us the way and the light and I wouldn’t have been half as confident about The Frank And Walters, for instance, if Toasted Heretic hadn’t tested the ground a couple of years earlier. And, when it came to setting up the ‘No Disco’ series in 1993 – as is referenced in detail here – I took many of my cues from their cavalier sense of adventure.

Far from being an impediment, being located away from Dublin gave Toasted Heretic a real freedom ;- removed from the distraction, they efficiently went about their business from under the radar and, on those occasions when they did leave their base in Galway, dealt exclusively in shock and awe. But while they happily skirted the fringes – and routinely reminded you they did – they also craved the bullseye. Julian certainly wanted it all – it was pointless to do otherwise, wasn’t it ? – and I don’t think I ever saw them as comfortable in a live setting as I did when they performed at Semple Stadium in Thurles during the Féile festival in 1992. Born in London to parents from Tipperary this, seven years after U2 in Croke Park, was Julian’s own ‘sort of homecoming’. And, for the occasion, the band played an ace set in the afternoon heat, the singer in his element on the large stage, flailing in an out-size tee-shirt and an ermine jacket, swinging from the trussing, baiting the young pups and delinquents up-front. They closed their short set with ‘You Can Always Go Home’, one of the stand-outs from their second album, ‘Charm And Arrogance’ and, later that evening, this song had its own resonances backstage. After cutting loose on some of the lackeys, liggers and flunkeys in the hospitality area, Julian was muscled out of the stadium by the site security. But he’d made his point and secured his headlines ;- ;- Semple just wasn’t ready enough for him.

And few were ever better at making their point. Toasted Heretic took their pop music very, very seriously but, just as importantly, Julian’s sharp tongue and keen eye gave them a wit and a curve that was lacking in many of their peers. Humour was one of a number of traits they shared with The Smiths, another fundamentally dis-located group who, by digging for gold under the kitchen sink, found sparkle – and the odd gag – in the everyday, the mundane and the humdrum. There was whimsy, bile and a host of fine one and two-liners at the heart of most of Julian’s songs ;- ‘He’s obsessed with trying to get his end away’, one RTÉ radio producer remarked to me during their set at Cork Rock. But there was always, I felt, much more side to Toasted Heretic than standard indie shapes and their ‘songs about sex, drugs and Nabokov and the commodification of art’*.

For one, alongside other Galway bands like The Swinging Swine and The Little Fish, they were the very antithesis of The Sawdoctors, another independent-minded and self-sufficient Western-located outfit once described memorably by the late George Byrne as ‘designer bogmen’. While The Sawdoctors found favour with the mainstream, enjoyed Gay Byrne’s imprimatur and only ever took the stage at Féile after tea-time, Toasted Heretic sought their jollies elsewhere. Melody Maker’s Andrew Mueller claimed they were ‘a brandy Alexander with a cherry on top’ but, as The Sawdoctors were serving soft-core, stag-party fodder to order and saucily remarking on ‘the glory of her ass’, Julian had more something more adult in mind. From his window in ‘the bay city’, he watched the sun go down on Galway Bay as ‘the daughter goes down on me’.

That song, ‘Galway Bay’, features on ‘Songs For Swinging Celibates’, the band’s cassette-only debut, released and distributed via Toasted Heretic’s own imprint, Bananafish Records, in 1988. In production terms, ‘Celibates’ is a serious achievement and the lo-fi, no frills, no cost approach masks a real ambition beneath. Toasted Heretic were one of the only bands I met who ever cited Momus, the left-field and often impenetrable Scottish songwriter, as an influence. And I can recall several conversations over the years with Neil Farrell, the band’s drummer and the brains behind it’s recording operation, about the potential of sequencers and digital technology. And this at a time when many homes in Ireland were still on long lists, waiting to have domestic telephones installed.

The fact that Toasted Heretic were perpetually broke never once stunted them. In fact it was the penury, you thought, that often drove them onwards, forcing them to live on their wits, often literally singing for their suppers. ‘Produced by accident’, they claimed – being unusually humble – on the hand-scrawled liner notes on ‘Songs For Swinging Celibates’. But they were ingenious with it too and, like another of my favourite performers, David Donoghue of The Floors, you’d have your work cut out keeping up with them. They borrowed favours widely and always knew someone just as talented as themselves who did graphic design, directed low-budget videos, took terrific photographs or made arresting posters. And for all Julian’s bookishness – he read widely, keenly and always remembered the detail – there was a ferocious pragmatism to him, as there always was with the rest of the band.

With their canon of smart pop songs, written mostly by Neil and Declan Collins and topped by Julian’s words [‘singing and posing’], they touched the skies for a number of years. As with many of their contemporaries, the band found a pair of early champions in RTÉ Radio 2 and Dave Fanning’s Rock Show, produced by Ian Wilson, played ‘Songs For Swinging Celibates’, to within an inch of it’s life. From that release, ‘Sodom Tonight’ is probably the best known of the earliest material and Fanning, in particular, seemed to get a real kick from it’s chorus ;- ‘Do we have to spend tomorrow in Gomorrah, well baby, Sodom tonight’.

But while Julian was clearly the band’s focal point, the band’s sound was styled by Declan Collins, from whom nothing much was ever heard apart from the quite remarkable sound he produced from his guitars. In his white rubber dollies, slacks and v-neck jumpers, he looked utterly unlikely and yet, beyond the curtain, Declan – and Neil – made Toasted Heretic hum. Practically every single one of their songs had at least one monster, full-on guitar solo – and often many more – and no playing style was beyond him. A typical set saw him veer, style-wise, from the casual moodiness of Knopfler to the angled jazz strokes of Walter Becker to Juan Martin’s classical grace notes and Dave Mustaine’s frenetic slam-ons. And back again. He said little in conversation and yet, when he unfurled his guitar, became a formidable presence in a line-up that, also featuring Aengus McMahon on bass and Breffni O’Rourke on second guitar, made a full-on racket.

 

The band released four albums in all, one of which, ‘Another Day, Another Riot’ [1992] issued on Liquid Records where Denis Desmond, possibly the most dominant figure in the established Irish entertainment industry, was one of the principal players. The marriage of Toasted Heretic and the label arm of MCD Productions was a most unusual one and, in the great traditions of these things, didn’t last too long ;- the band would have been too restless for the label and the label too stolid for the band. But, for a time, there were mutual benefits for both parties too ;- Desmond’s operation armed Toasted Heretic with heavier artillery on the ground while Toasted Heretic brought to Desmond’s label that which money and clout couldn’t buy ;- credibility. And to these ends ‘Another Day, Another Riot’ birthed the single, ‘Galway And Los Angeles’, generated more middle-ground reaction than previously and, with a few bob behind them for the first time, allowed them to spread the message out beyond the island.

But it’s not as if Toasted Heretic ever lacked for critical support in Britain – and, indeed, in France – where, unlike many of Ireland’s most vaunted local acts, they’d enjoyed positive notices from the get-go. London-based writers like Paul Du Noyer, Andrew Mueller and a recently re-located Graham Linehan were at the heart of this rolling maul, which I joined around 1989, quickly developing a strong rapport with the band. I tried to feature them in all of my various freelance guises from then until after the release of ‘Mindless Optimism’ in 1994, after which we all seemed to scarper in different directions. But it was Jim Arundel’s live review, carried in Melody Maker’s issue of February 1st, 1992 that, in hindsight, probably said it better than any of us.

I was one of the many who fetched up at The Borderline Club in North London in late January, 1992, to see Toasted Heretic. I was working with Setanta Records at the time and was killing two birds with the one Tube-fare ;- support on the night was provided by the then four-piece Divine Comedy [featuring John Allen on vocals], who were one of the handful of acts on our roster. Jim Arundel – or Jim Irvin – had briefly tasted chart success himself and, as lead vocalist with Furniture, enjoyed a top thirty single back in 1986 with the classy ‘Brilliant Mind’, which he’d co-written. [As a member of another band, Because, he subsequently released a magnificent album during the early 1990s called ‘Mad Scared Dumb which, if it can be located, is well worth the effort].

Jim was as perceptive and unrelentingly fair a music writer and reviewer as I had encountered and, although clearly taken with Julian and fond of Toasted Heretic, wasn’t completely convinced by them. In Julian he saw ‘a starburst waiting to happen’ but wondered ‘whether Toasted Heretic, as it stands, is the vehicle that will carry him heavenward ?’. He concluded his review as follows :-‘There are, Gough has realised, far too few songs with the word ‘butterscotch’ in them. Not much to build a career on though, is it ?’ and, in so doing, presciently pointed up the band’s limitations.

Toasted Heretic’s line-up had also started to fracture. One of the band’s founding members, Breffni O’Rourke, left the group to pursue – what else ? – a full-time career in academia, and yet the band’s final album, ‘Mindless Optimism’ remains, to my ears, their most complete. Co-produced by their long-time mentor and sidekick, Pat Neary – a sussed and skilled sound recordist and engineer who’d located to Galway from Dublin in the mid-1980s and who’d first worked formally with the band on 1990’s excellent ‘Smug’ E.P. – ‘Mindless Optimism’ may well have been the sound of a band waving themselves off. And yet, as with The Smiths’ ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’, it is the group’s most full-bodied and energetic issue. I routinely hark back to it and, in ‘Passenger Jets’, ‘Lightning’ and, especially, ‘Here Comes The New Year’, hear a band at the very apex of a short, prolific and impactful tenure.

Julian is now a full-time writer and novelist and lives in Europe. The last time we spoke was around the release of ‘Mindless Optimism’, over twenty years ago, when I interviewed him for the first series of ‘No Disco’. Having brought Julian all the way from Galway to Cork for the day, we set up eventually in one of the beige-painted offices upstairs in RTÉ Cork and he just went off. Julian always had plenty to say but, behind the digs and the outrageous put-downs, there was plenty of substance too. I can remember the sound-recordist on that shoot – a man more cynical, even, than most of that persuasion – rendered gob-smacked by the ferocity of Julian’s assault, lobbing grenade after grenade. With forty minutes of gold committed to tape, he turned to me and asked the question much loved of bored soundmen the world over ;- ‘How the fuck are you going to edit that down ?’.

In the end it was easy enough ;- I just omitted everything that was offensive and defamatory. And, once we’d done that, we just over-laid the video clips and gave the music a voice.

With Toasted Heretic, you never really had to do too much else.

 

*SOURCE – juliangough.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Brilliant Trees: Goldfinglas

I absolutely loved The Brilliant Trees and, listening back to their two excellent albums from a distance, time hasn’t dimmed my enthusiasm for them. Some had them marked as being as good as early Oasis, others cited a Blur influence and there were times when, with the vocals stripped out, they had the classic reach of The Trash Can Sinatras. Eitherway, the band’s ambition stretched out far beyond their base in the Dublin suburb of Finglas. And further again from the tender, hesitant soul of the David Sylvian album from which they took their name.

The Oasis references would haunt them and, I think, undermine them a bit eventually. Both bands shared many traits and the comparisons are obvious and well-founded ;- from working-class backgrounds on the outskirts of big cities, both groups had an axis of brothers among their number. Both played a sinewy and uncomplicated guitar pop with unsophisticated lyrics, were led by brooding, good-looking frontmen and had an unshakeable belief in their own ability. But I never once heard The Brilliant Trees crow about how good they were. And, in their pomp, they were damned good.

I worked alongside Jeff Brennan in The Rock Garden for eighteen months at the start of the 1990s. My job, ostensibly, was to promote the venue and to generate coverage for the bands we had in-coming but, in reality, I just hung around the place and annoyed the bar staff and the waitresses. Jeff had made the short move across from The Underground Bar on Dame Street, where he had developed the small, downstairs venue into Dublin’s most vibrant live draw. When last I passed by, The Underground had been replaced by a lap-dancing club and, knowing Jeff, the irony won’t be lost on him. Or, no doubt, on the hundreds of noisy oiks who played there over the years, all of whom put their own arses on the line for the smell of a few pound.

The Rock Garden had opened in a blaze of publicity, an Irish take on the Covent Garden original, paying decent coin to international and local acts to keep live music going nightly inside it’s cavernous belly on Crown Alley, in Dublin’s Temple Bar. The Cranberries once played there to eighteen people and died a slow, slow death. Pulp arrived one sunny Saturday afternoon, unimpressed that they’d been booked into Dublin’s cheapest hovel, off Gardiner Street, and having had half of their back line stolen after a London show the previous night. ‘Ah, sorry to hear that’, Jeff told the band’s sour-pussed tour manager. ‘The other half is bound to be stolen tonight’. Less than a hundred turned up to see them, a matter of months before they released ‘Common People’. To the best of our knowledge, their equipment survived the trip.

Radiohead played their first Irish show at The Rock Garden, as did The Auteurs. The Sultans Of Ping FC, The Frames, A House, The Frank And Walters, The Golden Horde, Into Paradise and a litany of workmanlike British indie acts also visited and, for a couple of great years, The Rock Garden really had an edge.

The Brilliant Trees were one of a number of high-profile Dublin bands who played the venue regularly – Blink and Sack were other notables – and they consistently rammed the place. Not only that but they rammed it with a different kind of crowd, bringing a large, partisan following into town from their hub out in the North-West. Like Aslan, they actively ploughed a furrow deep in the suburbs and mobilised a pretty serious audience that was far from the usual alickadoos and liggers.

Tony Barrett, the band’s guitarist and driving force, worked with Dublin Corporation and I’d often see him around town during the day. I loved the cut of his jib, his relentless enthusiasm and his absolute belief in the power of music. The Brilliant Trees may not have been the most original band in the world but they were certainly one of the most spirited Irish acts I encountered during the early 1990s. For a while they were seriously courted, and rightly so.

They were still honing their craft when they played the famous Cork Rock bill in 1991 alongside The Frank And Walters, The Cranberries, Toasted Heretic, Therapy?, The I.R.S. and The Sultans of Ping F.C. and, after No Disco first went to air in the Autumn of 1993, Dónal Dineen, Rory Cobbe and myself got behind them with no little gusto. Tony would phone us regularly with up-dates and we’d make sure that the lo-fi videos for ‘Home’ and ‘Talent’ – with their plaintive images and no-budget feelcourtesy of directors Donal Scannell, Eamonn Crudden and Niamh Guckian – featured regularly. In fact listening to ‘Home’ over twenty years on – a reflection on the destruction of the heart of inner city Dublin against the shadow of cranes on the sky-line – one is reminded that while The Brilliant Trees were a pop band at heart, they had a keen and prescient eye too. Which, I felt, set them apart from the pack.

And so when No Disco required a headliner for the Dublin Aids Alliance benefit concert we ran at Whelans in May, 1994, we went first to The Brilliant Trees. They were as obliging as they were enthralling and, of course, we were guaranteed that they’d stuff the place.

Probably later than they’d either wanted or expected, they released their first album, ‘Friday Night’, in the early summer of 1996. Later that year, I sat down with Tony Barrett, singer Alan Hoey and the band’s articulate drummer, Dave Farrell, in advance of what was to be the band’s biggest headline show ever, at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre. The band was clearly at a cross-roads and, beyond the thoughtful and considered tone of our exchange, there was a real frustration too, and I tried to capture this in the gut of the piece. By now The Brilliant Trees had been on the go for a while and, although ‘Friday Night’ had been released to no little acclaim, the entire project had come at a cost.

My piece ran originally in The Sunday Tribune on November 10th, 1996, under the heading ‘Money grows on Trees’ and is re-produced in full here

 M o n e y   g r o w s   o n   T r e e s

It’s a rusted chestnut to be sure, but great records needn’t cost the world and it’s left leg. Rather, most record company debts are mounted by promotional budgets, mismanagement and by impractical and bloated band hand-outs.

Dublin’s Brilliant Trees would no doubt concur, an endearing and enterprising guitar pop group that have, in seven years, served their time, played their score of odds and that are still very squarely, however happily or unhappily, at an impasse.

The Brilliant Trees have been around long enough and hard enough to see both sides and, despite their noble if blind faith in popular music’s theories, it’s the industry’s defined sense of commerce and practice that has caused their greatest and most recurring problems.

And still The Brilliant Trees are arguably the only unsigned domestic act that can actually justify their press release hyperbole with fact. Their last Dublin show drew a capacity crowd to The Mean Fiddler. Which is probably what you’d expect from a band that was once described by the N.M.E., over-rashly and quite possibly in an over-flush of zeal, as being better than The Smiths. These days, over mid-afternoon, weekend lagers, they can afford to laugh. But only just. And while size and history may count for little when push comes to shove, The Brilliant Trees, a band that would rather do than talk, at least deserve a hearing.

‘We more or less pay for our own records’, Tony Barrett – the band’s guitarist and primary motivator – tells us. ‘We have a management company that, out of necessity, has become a record company and they bring out our records. We repay them the money that they’ve invested in us, but we’re thankfully at the stage where we’re almost quits with them now’. So while The Brilliant Trees may coyly shake all of this off as some sort of mild debt of love and devotion, the reality is that, for them, for now, it’s empty at the bottom.

Their first album, ‘Friday Night’, released shortly before the start of last summer, should have been their defining calling card ;- a pick and mix of wholesome, efficient and sinewy guitar pop songs that wear their hearts very blatantly but that make no apologies or outrageous claims. But the exercise has instead woken the band to the very essence of the music industry, to the point where these days band meetings are more about money and less about songs.

‘All in all, between the recording and the manufacture and artwork, the record cost us about £11,000’, reckons drummer Dave Farrell. ‘All of the money that we take in at gigs goes straight back to paying off the album debt. It’s not particularly easy at the best of times, but we do this because we love it, simple as that’.

Popular music has traditionally been the playground of the middle classes, rarely venturing to beyond the beyonds, and while The Brilliant Trees make light of their backgrounds in the working-class suburb of Finglas, many of their concerns are far more real than popular culture’s glamour guides would have us believe.

‘I’ve got a job doing wages in Dublin Corporation’, says Barrett. ‘I’ve got a young daughter, I’ve got a mortgage and I’ve already taken next year’s holidays so that we could play some American shows earlier this year.There was a time when we used to buy 20 cans and rehearse down at the shed for hours on end but we don’t even seem to have done that in an age. It’s probably a sign of the times’.

‘The reality is that we need regular record company money to make the kind of records we desperately want to make’, says Farrell. ‘With the ‘Heart Strings’ single, we just didn’t have the money and the clout to advertise the thing on radio or to do fly-posters and basic stuff like that which can mean so much. Ultimately it’s all very well and good making great singles but it’s another thing entirely trying to get the songs heard’.

‘To be perfectly honest’, Tony Barrett confides, ‘we’re very disappointed that ‘Heart Strings’ didn’t go into the Top 30. We were desperately looking for a genuine hit on this one because we know the song is good enough. It’s just a shame that it comes down to not having enough money to push the thing over the cliff’.

A well-received American jaunt earlier this year offers them a shard of hope, although again The Brilliant Trees move shyly. ‘We’re old enough and smart enough to know that it’s not going to happen for us in England’, claims Farrell, ‘and the only option open to us now is in America because America seems to be far more open to what we’re doing and what we’re about. The last time around we played nine shows in Boston and New York and we went down so well that we’ll probably move over there, however temporarily, at the start of next year’.

‘We were genuinely taken aback by the response we received in America’, singer Alan Hoey recalls. ‘Once again we know faraway fields are always greener but the thought of playing to a whole new audience and dealing with a new set of people is all very exciting for us, even after all this time’.

In an industry that works largely on a tissue of mutual lies, deceits and distortions, The Brilliant Trees have at least come this far with their dignity intact. These days, however, they’re dealing in far more abstracts and with far more numbers than they probably ever imagined.

‘No matter how well you do in this country, you’re never going to be able to support the band in the long-term’, Dave Farrell concludes. ‘The point is that if there were 800 people at our last show in Dublin, then there may easily be another 800 out there, and if there’s another 800 out there, then there may be another 8,000 out there. Who knows ?’.

NOTE :- The Brilliant Trees did roll on, doing what they’d promised they would. And in 1999, with Florida-based management in place, released a second, excellent album, ‘Wake Up And Dream’. Tony Barrett is currently part of Elevens, alongside Sack’s Martin McCann and Mark Healy from The Josephs.