The Beach Boys

THE THRILLS

To my mind, far too much contemporary music writing – and indeed arts coverage in general – has become identity politics by another name. Show me your Amazon, Spotify and Twitter history and I’ll tell you who you are, what you’re thinking and who I think you should be, basically.

Maybe it’s always been thus and the growth of the internet has just made it easier to join the dots and to compartmentalise ? Either way, the politics of identity – and the politics of class, arguably the last taboo for journalism – are central to any faithful telling of the story of The Thrills, the South Dublin pop band who, for five years, cut a considerable dash and made a real indent into the mainstream. But if their rise was meteoric – and notwithstanding their earlier incarnations and a rudderless spell spent hacking around the local circuit, I still contend that it was – then their implosion was just as spectacular.

The Thrills have a terrific yarn to tell and, who knows ?, they may opt to tell it someday. In the meantime, we’re left with three albums on a major label, decent commercial headway and a series of paper-thin stereotypes and crudely formed generalisations for our troubles.

The short history of the band can be read, on one level, as the parable of the Irish state between 2002 and 2008. The band embodied, especially on their carefree debut album, ‘So Much For The City’, much of the mood of the country during it’s Celtic Tiger period, those years of sustained, unprecedented growth and, for many, mindless and reckless optimism and abandon. And during which Ireland, a state then not yet one hundred years old, encountered widespread economic prosperity for the first time in its short life. Much of which, as we sadly know now, was constructed, with little oversight or self-regulation, by a compliant banking system – on sand and with pyrite-contaminated concrete. The consequences of that national giddiness are still being severely felt all over Ireland, ten years after the inevitable crash that provided the sting in the tiger’s tail.

The Thrills – good-looking, aspirational, young, ambitious and naïve – epitomised much of the pimped-up confidence of the Tiger years. And, for as long as they were active on a major label, provided a welcome antidote to many of the more monochrome Dublin outfits who’d gone before them.

The Blades, for instance, had rooted many of their songs in the long-running social soap opera of Dublin’s south inner-city during the late 1970s and early 1980s. In their slipstream, A House, from West Dublin, were determined by a cynicism rarely seen previously in Irish popular music and hardly seen again since. While across on the Northside, The Brilliant Trees, Damien Dempsey and Aslan were minding their manors and giving authentic voices to the many they encountered who were without.

And all of these outfits shared sharp, finely-tuned pop sensibilities, as well as a decent command of the short form. With which they brought varying degrees of insight and pain from a markedly different world located a matter of post-codes away from the capital’s main drags. So much for the city, indeed.

The Thrills, on the other hand, did what their name suggested ;- they were the urgent, hormone-fused sound of young graduates on a prolonged frat party a long way from home. For better and for worse – and there are many who scored them way down for it – there isn’t a hint of malice in anything they’ve ever committed to tape.

Dublin bands at a particular level have traditionally been photographed either on local beaches, against grainy, industrial back-drops or inside their rehearsal spaces, where they’ve routinely looked either frozen, scared, po-faced and often a combination of all three. The Thrills were almost always snapped, instead, in glorious technicolour and in exotic locations that were always more Venice Beach and less Dollymount Strand.

And it helped, of course, that they could take a decent close-up and looked like they enjoyed being photographed. In their carefully- styled vintage duds, they made like they were having a good time all of the time. And with a stash of irrepressible, radio-friendly pop songs in their locker, there was a time when they fleetingly had the world in their hands.

It’s an indication of the scale of their impact – and a reflection too of the dearth of genuine personalities in Ireland – that, as soon as they’d made an initial chart breakthrough in Britain, they found themselves regularly lampooned on ‘Gift Grub’, a comedy insert on ‘The Ian Dempsey Breakfast Show’, a weekday radio programme on the the national station, Today FM, where they featured alongside some of the more prominent political, entertainment and sports figures of the day.

‘Gift Grub’ has long given a soft soaping to the lighter end of the daily news lists and, in the absence of consistent writing and strong editing, its focus tends instead towards characters whose distinctive accents and verbal tics can be most easily replicated. And so The Thrills, with their soft, unfeasibly polite and American-blend South Dublin accents, became easy radio comedy fodder alongside staple characters like the Cork-born footballer, Roy Keane, the Donegal-born entertainer, Daniel O’Donnell and the rambling, shambling Drumcondra-born Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern.

But back in the real world, The Thrills career was on the crescent of one of those dramatic rollercoasters that often back-dropped their publicity photographs or their videos ;- they quickly gained a decent commercial foothold, sold records and made a real noise. Just as easy to lampoon was the shameless thievery that characterised their  sound, had the country’s comedy writers bothered to root around under the bonnet.

Well-read students of popular music history, The Thrills borrowed freely and to good effect. From the sun-kissed aspects of The Beach Boys to the clinical, designer-built friendliness of The Monkees and the confident but surly swagger of The Byrds, they were, at their peak, clinically re-parcelling old school tropes and, to the trained ear, the odd re-cycled riff. And they were a terrific burn.

But The Thrills came of age on record and an upward critical curve is clear to anyone who stayed the course with them for the four years from ‘So Much For The City’ in 2003 until ‘Teenager’ in 2007. Over the course of three albums on Virgin Records/EMI, they left a footprint that is as considerable as the division in Irish public opinion they created as they did so. And while they’ve not been entirely purged from the recent history of contemporary Irish music, their achievements – and, by current standards, those have been considerable – are far too easily lost in the wash.

By the time their pedalo ran aground – just after their record company heard the final mixes of ‘Teenager’, I suspect – not only had much of The Thrills’ fanbase moved on but the national optimism they’d sound-tracked back in Ireland had been spectacularly sundered. Against the backdrop of an international economic collapse – that led to the nationalisation of the Irish banking system, a period of prolonged austerity and a re-alignment of established political thinking – The Thrills just sounded utterly out of time. Like many others all over the country they were made redundant almost over-night.

But on record they’d developed a second skin and it’s a real shame that, just as they’d started to incorporate some of the more interesting aspects of the R.E.M. style-book into their sound, they were already whistling in the wind. Indeed creatively, they’d come very far very quickly and, by 2007, The Thrills were a much more sinewy proposition to the green-beats hand-picked by Morrissey to open for him during his fine comeback shows in Dublin’s Ambassador Theatre five years previously. And where they looked wafer-thin but to the manor born.

It’s to the band’s credit too that, unlike Bradford, The Ordinary Boys, Phranc and a host of others, The Thrills survived Morrissey’s infamous patronage – when it comes to endorsing new bands, he has the Midas touch in reverse – and went on to achieve mainstream success quickly thereafter.

Led by Conor Deasy, the band’s unconscionably good-looking and hirsute lead singer and their heartbeat and pulse, bass-player and guitarist Daniel Ryan, The Thrills’ debut album, ‘So Much For The City’ became, for many, a free-wheeling national soundtrack of sorts after its release in 2002. Apart from the singles, ‘Santa Cruz’, ‘One Horse Town’, ‘Big Sur’ and ‘Don’t Steal Our Sun’, that elpee also contains the mighty ‘Your Love Is Like Las Vegas’ and, across its eleven tracks, not a single word or accent to suggest where the band came from.

One of the recurring criticisms levelled at them – and, by any standards, The Thrills seemed to be held to account far more aggressively than many of their peers – is that their horizontal, JI-visa view of the world was just far too flimsy and narrow. The suggestion being that The Thrills could instead – like one of their own favourite Irish bands, Whipping Boy – have been documenting the minutiae of [sub]urban life in Dublin as opposed to that in San Diego, New York and California. They were scarcely believable, basically.

I can’t recall the same charges being ever put, though, to Snow Patrol, a band who share many of The Thrills key characteristics and who, at the same time, emerged in similar fashion and to the same effect. But I can certainly recall the core argument.

So I am reminded of the guts of the 1991 pamphlet by the writer and academic, Desmond Fennell – ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing’ – in which he took the poet Seamus Heaney to task for what the author perceived to be a failure to adequately address the plight of Northern Catholics within much of the poet and writer’s work.

Fennell, now in his 80s, has long been an engaging and free-thinking chronicler of Irish society and the nation’s character and, by 1991, had plenty of form. Throughout his considerable career – much of it spent abroad or on the fringes – he has rarely held back, especially on what he felt was the colonization of Irish art at the expense of more prevalent national issues ;- the ‘cleansing of Irish literature of Irishness’.

And yes, The Thrills were far from perfect. Lyrically, especially, they could be unforgivably naïve, while Conor was never the most gifted singer :- he had a limited vocal range at the best of times and, live, he often struggled to tip the top end. All three of the band’s albums also feature an amount of rockwool – more draught filler than decoration piece – while their specific cultural references, as these things do, have dated them quickly and badly.

But then there was the elephant loose on the beach :- the matter of the band’s background. They grew up in the South Dublin suburbs of Blackrock, Stillorgan and Ballinteer – and their education. Deasy and Ben Carrigan, the band’s drummer, are past pupils of Gonzaga College in Ranelagh, one of Dublin’s most elite and expensive fee-paying schools and more renowned, historically, for producing more lawyers and judges than rock and rollers.

And it would be naïve to think that – either consciously or not – this was never a factor in how the band was initially received and, latterly, how The Thrills were critically assessed at home. Indeed The Irish Times was quick out of the blocks and, by July, 2003, was already sniping away under the cover of a ‘style over substance’ piece as if the band were bringing nothing but connections and good looks to the party. And whatever questions that existed around the band’s frame of reference were amplified by the sense that they were simply killing time, just monkeying around.

Which is, in my view, to seriously under-estimate the records they left behind them. And which got better – and less commercially successful – as they went. Their last album, ‘Teenager’ was led by the sturdy single, ‘Nothing Changes Around Here’ but that title was a real misnomer ;- by then everything had changed and The Thrills were burning oil. Curiously enough, the promo video featured Conor Deasy, alone, walking yet another sea-front, with the rest of the band nowhere. It had been merely five years since the clip for ‘Don’t Steal Our Sun’ where, in the worst traditions of The Monkees, a gang of pale Irish goofballs fetch up to shoot hoops on a public court with local slam-dunking magicians.

And this much was apparent throughout the exchange that Conor Deasy conducted with Michael Ross for a long feature piece in The Sunday Times’ Irish edition in 2007 where  he sounded like he’d just been ground down. It had been a relentless half-decade of record-tour-write-record-tour, underpinned by The Thrills’ dual efforts to impact in America and, as a pop group, to remain in the moment. And to this end they’re not the first band – and certainly not the first Irish band – to have been torn asunder by the scale of the U.S. inter-state highways and all that they bring with them.

The Thrills were never the finished article but, for five years, they were one of the most interesting and freshest Irish bands at play in the deeper end of the pool. And like many of the successful domestic acts who have divided the popular court here over the last forty years – U2, Sinéad O’Connor and The Boomtown Rats – The Thrills too have had their authenticity – or is it their audacity ? – fiercely questioned in their own backyards.

But it’s important and only fair that, in accurately assessing them, we play the ball and not the men.

EPIC SOUNDTRACKS, KEVIN JUNIOR and NIKKI SUDDEN

 

You may not recognise all of the characters but you’ll almost certainly recognise the story, or at least the darker parts of it. At its core are three men with a love of the same kind of music in common, liberated from time to time, I suppose, by the magic they heard around them, some of which they produced on their own, other times with one another. All three of them are dead now and none of them saw the age of fifty.

All three tended almost always towards the hard shoulder and never really threatened the popular market, like many of the artists and lots of the music we’re drawn to here. But I’ve tried not to be too pious in the telling and I’m not being wilful or deliberately obscure: if the story strikes a chord, then I’ve listed some records below that you might like to check out. The complicated, fractured lives of Epic, Kevin and Nikki – and the music they made – only really make sense that way. And so …

Kevin Junior’s death earlier this year went relatively unmarked over here, and understandably enough. The American singer, guitarist and producer died five days after David Bowie, on January 15th last and, outside of his circle of friends, family and those who had loyally supported his bands, The Rosehips and  The Chamber Strings, and his various other side-projects over the years, his name will be unfamiliar. I spent the guts of fifteen years talking him up to anyone I met and, from a distance and with the benefit of the internet, followed his moves, wished him on, watched him vagabonding in several guises, car-crashing his way sidewards and downwards.

As is the case with Epic Soundtracks, with whom he wrote, toured, recorded and performed, Kevin is rarely cited as widely as his talent, flawed as it was, maybe deserves. But he leaves behind him a decent canon of work that, uneven as it is, captures a restless spirit at work, hinting at what could have been and that, on occasion, is up there with the best of them. When Kevin had his head straight and his body clean, he was capable of real alchemy: like many before him, his songs were maybe all he really ever had but, in the end, not even those were enough to save him.

Folk of a certain age and of a particular leaning will remember Epic and his brother, Nikki Sudden: they buttressed Swell Maps, an urgent punk-art outfit that flourished briefly during the late 1970s. Born in Solihull, near Birmingham, in the English midlands, and raised as Kevin and Adrian Godfrey respectively, they recorded a pair of opaque albums with Swell Maps who, years after they folded, were name-checked fondly by the likes of R.E.M. and Dinosaur Jr. Indeed R.E.M. backed Nikki on his 1991 single, ‘I Belong To You’, which was recorded at John Keane’s famous studio in Athens, Georgia and which derived from a three-month period the previous year during which Nikki had moved into Peter Buck’s house.

Epic Soundtracks passed away in 1997 and Nikki Sudden died in New York city nine years later: Kevin’s death last January completes that circle and, on one level, wraps up a little known side-story in the modern history of alternative American and British pop music. Kevin spent many years soldiering long and hard with both Epic and Nikki, lurching from place to place, song to song, crisis to crisis, barely keeping on. When he re-located to Berlin to accompany Nikki during the 1990s, he fell quickly into a period of chronic drug use: it had been the same story earlier in Los Angeles. And in New York. And back home in Akron, Ohio.

Epic Soundtracks and Kevin Junior wrote and played from the heart and the records they’ve left behind are, almost without exception, simply executed and remarkably personal. Kevin believed that Epic actually died of a broken heart: he’d struggled with depression for years and an intense relationship had ended in the months before he passed away. In Kevin’s case it seems as if, after thirty odd years spent clinging to the ledge, his own heart simply gave out too. Nikki Sudden died in New York in 2006 and, while the cause of his death has never been clearly determined, he too was defined for years as much by his drug use as by his music. If it was their hearts that first bound them and bonded them, it was their hearts that failed them all in the end too.

Akron, Ohio features prominently in the colourful and often bizarre history of Stiff Records, and the story and spirit of the label – that boasts among it’s leading players the likes of Dave Robinson, Jake Riviera, Madness, Ian Dury And The Blockheads, Nick Lowe, The Damned, Devo, Rachel Sweet and numerous others – is captured in detail in Richard Balls’s terrific book, ‘Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story’ [Soundcheck Books]. It was in Akron that Kevin was born Kevin Gerber in 1969 to a pair of music loving, free-thinking parents: as a child he was baby-sat by Chrissie Hynde and, as Bob Mehr mentions in a fine profile for The Chicago Reader in 2007, ‘he attended Firestone High School, which produced such future stars as Hynde, Rachel Sweet and members of Devo’.

Kevin moved to Chicago in his mid-teens and cut a skeletal shape from the get-go in his trademark Johnny Thunders do and sharp jackets, almost always stylishly adorned with a silk scarf and a pair of decent winkle-pickers. Like Nikki and Epic, Kevin was an advocate of the old school, long influenced by T-Rex, The New York Dolls, The Beach Boys, quality R and B and The Monkees. From where Kevin looked, in order to sound good it was vital to look good first and he covers this ground in detail on an efficient, low-budget documentary, ‘Chamber Strings – For A Happy Ending’, made for the Glorious Noise website.

It was Keith Cullen at Setanta Records who first turned me onto Epic soundtracks, back when we worked together in London in the early 1990s and during which time I would often kip down in a hammock strung across his kitchen in a squat in Camberwell. I was trying as best I could to make a positive contribution to an emerging independent record label, while free-lancing for a couple of music magazines to turn a coin. With the Setanta roster developing nicely, Keith needed dependable, day-to-day office help: most of the time I just got in the way.

I’d often put myself to sleep with a primitive Walkman clung to my ears and, for a while, Epic’s music was what I’d hear last thing at night. Himself and Freedy Johnston, another favourite during that time at the Setanta office, were affiliated to a vibey New York-based label called Bar None, run by a Limerick man called Tom Prendergast. Tom’s apartment in Hoboken often hosted Setanta’s bureau chief and Bar None and Setanta shared a philosophical and business arrangement, on and off, for years.

Bar None’s substantial and varied catalogue also boasts releases by the likes of They Might Be Giants, Peter Holsapple, Carlow’s David Donoghue/The Floors and a host of others but it was Epic Soundtracks’ 1994 album, ‘Sleeping Star’ for the label that remains, to these ears, one of the most affecting records of the decade. It was because of Tom Prendergast’s relationship with Setanta – and the regular exchange of stories and music between the labels – that I first started to tease back through Epic’s lineage and, for a while, I became obsessed with his story. Tom Prendergast’s own history, it should also be said, is one of the great, largely untold stories from the fringes of Irish alternative music history from the early-1980s onwards.

Kevin Junior recorded two excellent albums with his band, The Chamber Strings – ‘Gospel Morning’ [1997] and ‘Month of Sundays’ [2001] – both of which betray his long infatuation with the likes of The Beach Boys, T Rex and the more tender aspects of The New York Dolls. But despite consistently good notices, the band found it difficult to generate any forward momentum: Kevin’s short life was largely spent on the hoof and he led a temporal existence, moving onwards and sideways until, as was often the case, drugs just moved him out.

He alludes to this on the remarkable liner notes he wrote for ‘Good Things’, the posthumous Epic Soundtracks album released in 2005, eight years after Epic was found dead, alone, in his ground floor flat in West Hampstead, London.

Plaintively written, Kevin vividly paints a number of key scenes from an incredible few months in his long friendship with Epic and transports his reader and listener back into the belly of the small flat in which the pair of them recorded that record between November 21st and 27th, 1996. It was a record, like much else in their lives at the time, that they hadn’t planned. Indeed both men found themselves together in London by accident and only after a tour of Europe, on which Kevin was due to lead Epic’s backing band, had been cancelled at the last minute. Rather than put his plane ticket to waste, Kevin fetched up in West London with his then girlfriend, some primitive pieces of kit and not a whole lot else.

He found Epic living from hand to mouth and struggling badly: it had been years since he’d released new material, his personal life had come asunder, he’d had difficulties gaining entry into the U.S. and his long-standing label had gone cold on him. And yet Epic’s love of music was undiminished: Kevin recalled that he would rather survive on cereal [‘his beloved Sugar Puffs’] if it meant he could afford to purchase records and CDs from London’s second hand stores. [One of the many photographs that adorn the inside of ‘Good Things’ captures Epic in a white towelling robe, vinyl in hand and posing, in his flat, in front of a vast library of elpees and compact discs].

And still, between them, they knocked out a series of rough demos of a host of new Epic material, using the most basic techniques to tape onto Kevin’s Tascam Porta Two four-track recorder that he ‘bought in the 1980’s for $150’. As Kevin writes: ‘Instruments included Epic’s W.H. Barnes upright piano, a Fender Twin amp and the best acoustic guitar I’ve ever played, my $75 Mitchel, a nameless organ, some half broken pieces of percussion, a digital delay pedal and a few guitars on loan from friends.

‘We had to constantly deal with the problem of low batteries that we couldn’t afford to replace and the blasts of train whistles that pierced through the garden window and into the floor. There was no way to punch in or overdub parts that didn’t feel like the musical equivalent to a game of Twister’.

And ‘Good Things’ bears all of those hallmarks. It’s far from Epic’s best record: it’s a series of brittle, lo-fi recordings, some of which are barely clinging to life. And yet, as tends to often be the case, some of it is truly enchanting. But Kevin wasn’t merely Epic’s co-writer and co-producer:  over the course of the recording, and a subsequent two-handed tour of Europe, he’d become his primary carer too. Epic had few friends and no real supports to summon in London. He was, Kevin reckoned, in an awful state.

Once the recordings had been complete, and once Epic and Kevin – and Kevin’s girlfriend, Karen Kiska – had completed a short, acoustic and hastily-arranged series of live shows around Austria and Germany primarily, travelling light, cheaply and often simply booking dates as they went, the party went it’s separate ways.

‘Epic phoned the day after we arrived back in Chicago’, Kevin’s liner notes reveal. ‘He said some nice things about our friendship and then said that what would really make him happy at that moment would be for the three of us to go see a film’. Two weeks later, Epic Soundtracks was found dead in his flat. ‘It’s been said that a man can die if he simply loses the will to live’, Kevin writes. ‘I don’t care what anyone else says, I believe Epic died of a broken heart …’. He was 38 years old.

‘Good Things’ finally saw the light of day in 2005 and, featuring the songs recorded in Sumatra Road in West Hampstead years previously, mixed and finished by Nikki Sudden and Kevin’s evocative notes, is the final farewell from one of the most beguiling and genuinely fascinating British songwriters of the 1990s. It’s a record I go back to time and again because, often, the saddest things are also the most beautiful things.

And so, if you get the opportunity …

For more about Epic, Kevin and Nikki :-

Jane From Occupied Europe’ by Swell Maps [Rough Trade Records, 1980]

Sleeping Star’ by Epic Soundtracks [Rough Trade Records/Bar None, 1994]

Red Brocadeby Nikki Sudden, backed by The Chamber Strings [Chatterbox Records, 1999]

Gospel Morning’ by The Chamber Strings [Bobsleigh Records, 2000]

Good Things’ by Epic Soundtracks [DBK Works, 2006]

THE SMITHS AND MY MOTHER.

 

I was born, luckily, to a mother who adored music. I remember many occasions during my childhood when she’d power up her old record player – and it was very definitely her record player – and stack it with a variety of old 7 inch singles and all manner of albums. It was my mother who bought me my first record – E.L.O.’s ‘Shine A Little Love’ – and it was her devotion to daytime music radio [she was the housewife in ‘housewife’s choice’] that re-inforced the message and exposed me to all kinds of wonderful. I had no idea at the time, of course, but the rose was being sown ;- in my mother’s world, and later in my own, those who didn’t have music in them just weren’t worth the effort. They were queerhawks, so you went there lightly.

 

She introduced me, one way or another, to The Beach Boys, Marianne Faithful and The Beatles. She was appalled then, as she is now, by the more lurid aspects of rock and roll and was especially suspicious of David Bowie, outwardly at least. ‘That fella doesn’t know if he’s a man or a woman’, she’d regularly say, more to get a rise out of my father than anything else, I imagine. But she ran an honest and good home and, over the years, heartily welcomed many a passing musician who dossed down for the night. ‘How’s the boy from Into Paradise ?’, she still asks. ‘Is he still doing the music ?’.

 

I started secondary school in 1980 and, like my friends, was happy in the haze of the chart hits of the day. I was keeping a close eye on E.L.O, who were still regulars on the hit-parade and who I had now adopted, carefully collecting their new releases while dipping into the bargain bins in search of their older material. At home, various compilation albums – often advertised on television and usually released on either the K-Tel, Telstar and Warwick labels – also helped to broaden my knowledge and expand my breath of reference. And it was here that I first got my ears around the likes of The Sweet, Mud and Gilbert O’Sullivan, all of whom I still love.

 

But it was all a bit different with The Smiths. From the off I felt I was operating a bit more illicitly and under my own steam ;- not like any other love, this one was different. I saw them for the first time on a European-wide music show, late one weekend night on RTÉ, alongside another British group called Immaculate Fools, featured as part of a broader event showcasing emerging bands from countries throughout the continent. The short video clip captured the group performing their new single in a shed filled draped with flowers ;- I noted the name in my head and, on a Saturday morning some weeks afterwards, located a copy of ‘This Charming Man’ upstairs in Eason’s on Patrick Street in Cork.

 

 

The Smiths are still one of my favourite bands ever – as are E.L.O. – and, like everyone else who fell under their spell, changed forever the way I listened to music and what I expected from it. I’ve written about them extensively over the years because a] everybody else has and b] there was always so much to write about ;- to music writers, oiks and pseuds everywhere, they were a gift that just kept on giving. We’ll post some of those longer pieces here over time, but in the meantime …

 

In November, 1996, the French music and culture magazine, Les Inrockuptibles , issued a one-off album, ‘The Smiths Is Dead’, to mark the tenth anniversary of the release of The Smiths’ third studio album, ‘The Queen Is Dead’ [which was actually unleashed in June, 1986]. The magazine asked ten of it’s favourite bands du jour to cover a track each from the acclaimed album ;- and so The Frank And Walters did ‘Cemetry Gates’,  The Trash Can Sinatras took on ‘I Know It’s Over’, The Divine Comedy performed ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’, The Boo Radleys did the title track and so on and so forth. It sounded excellent in theory but, in reality, was far from it ;- some bands should just stay uncovered.

 

 

I used the opportunity of the Les Inrockuptibles release to write an easy Sunday Tribune column on October 20th, 1996. As well as re-cycling some of my own well-worn observations on the band , I asked four people – some I knew well, some not at all – to throw a light on the band by selecting their own favourite Smiths song. I didn’t ask one woman for an input, and it never once struck me that this was odd. One of the most common misconceptions about The Smiths was that their audiences were exclusively male, and from across a very broad class spectrum. And besides, I spent much of the 1990s boring other men to tears with intense theory about Morrissey, Marr and ‘the split’, most of which I’d lifted from a long-lunch I’d had with Johnny Rogan, author of ‘The Severed Alliance’ in The Long Valley bar in Cork in 1994.

 

That Sunday Tribune column, which ran under the headline ‘The Smiths : forging an identity’, most of which we’ve re-produced in full below, was merely an extension of some of those boys-club conversations. And I’m still not sure if this was a good or a bad thing.

 

Originally published in Sunday Tribune October 20th 1996

Ask Me. Ask Me. Ask Me. And Me. 

 

There was a time and a place when everyone had an opinion on The Smiths. To many of us they were the defining popular cultural force of our – or indeed any other – generation. To others they were maudlin and self-important which, of course, suited our notions anyway and served only to make us respect them even more. And right now, ten years after the release of arguably the last decade’s most important and pivotal album, ‘The Queen Is Dead’, they are once again very much at one’s elbow.

 

That both the band and the record have endured for so long is a tribute to their own stubborn vision and to the intensity of blind faith they culled from a heretofore beaten and tired generation. Peddling a blatant gang mentality, they played on their own terms and quit while they were ahead by laps.

 

In hindsight The Smiths were the academic soundtrack of our adolescence, a conversation piece and a salvation of sorts. In Morrissey’s words and all through Johnny Marr’s masterful songs, we saw a world of underdogs and inadequates, the clinical antidote to New Romance, beach-pop and synthetics. They dealt in smug, knowing one-liners and, naturally, we believed their every word.

 

The Queen Is Dead’ made itself known to us some ten years ago, quite possibly the last record we have ever awaited so eagerly. But by this time we had already swapped-off that part of our vinyl stack which pre-dated ‘Hand In Glove’. The first ever line to their first ever single went :- ‘Hand in glove, the sun shines out of our behinds’, the gorgeously arrogant intent that was to become par for The Smiths. And that was our first taste of ‘real’ or ‘proper’ music.

 

My friend Dónal Dineen, a television person and writer, spent his adolescence on a farm in Rathmore, County Kerry, taking his social cues – like far too many of us – from late-night radio and bad weekend television. ‘My favourite Smiths song’,  he admits, ‘is ‘This Charming Man’ because sometimes the best songs have the best opening lines, and this one opens spectacularly. I first heard this song, which opens ‘Punctured bicycle on a hillside, desolate. Will nature make a man of me yet ?’ having cycled to a youth club teenage disco in Killarney. Suddenly, the whole world made sense’.

 

But The Smiths made their own rules, pushing their boat out far beyond the beyond. By the time of ‘The Queen Is Dead’ they were articulating, through popular music, with guitars and with words, everything we’d long suspected but could never actually admit. Nick Kelly, boy-wonder rock-kid at The Times, remembers the record like it was yesterday. ‘My favourite Smiths song is ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’, he pops, ‘because in it’s time it gave a certain hope to all of those pale boys at teenage discos that couldn’t quite muster the courage to either dance or flirt. It should be made required listening for all teenage boys going to their first school disco’.

 

In many respects of course, The Smiths were grossly out of time and out of kilter and yet they were very quickly essential, if only because they stimulated our every sense. Marr’s songs, even ten years on, stand any time-test, a truly spectacular and prolific canon that, with it’s sheer scope and ambition, dominates an entire musical era like a blanket on a cage. Morrissey’s words, meanwhile, have long-since become biblical and Eddie Bannon, this town’s funniest new comedian, remembers them fondly.

 

‘My favourite Smiths song is ‘Panic’’, he says. ‘The one where the chorus goes ‘hang the D.J., hang the D.J.’. Its basically a memory-linked thing – although having said that, I just also despise disc jockeys. But I can remember seeing them on television, on The Old Grey Whistle Test, I think, and just being completely entranced’.

 

But by now of course, just before and certainly during ‘The Queen Is Dead’, Morrissey had assumed legendary status. Not only were his band on a very definite roll but they had long-since become a large-scale mainstream alternative, albeit one that very truly irritated our parents, sisters and, it appeared, the tabloids. This, in our book, was well cool. Morrissey gave spectacularly good copy to anyone willing to listen, and the further he pushed, then the quicker he became a celebrated cause. And we, blindly and bizarrely, just loved him.

 

Gerard Crowley is a free-lance cartoonist. ‘My favourite Smiths song, for several reasons, is ‘Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want’’, he says. ‘Not only does it have a gorgeous sleeve [later banned] but the song is suitably downbeat. Up-tempo songs generally make me depressed, and this is truly beautiful. Johnny Marr’s mandolin wouldn’t be out of place on the ‘Cinema Paradiso’ soundtrack. It’s that good’.

 

All of which leads – in a circular and misty-eyed way, I know – to this. At the end of this month, the French rock music monthly magazine, Les Inrockuptibles, celebrates one of popular music’s most important anniversaries with a tribute album of odds and ends ;- ‘The Queen Is Dead’ as played and shaped by a quirky bin of fans and opportunists. And while most tribute records largely say nothing to anyone about either self or life – often no more than record-label hi-jacks and credibility cash-ins – it’s pretty cool to at least see something from our own petty histories come back and shame us and enthral us in equal measures and in all of the best possible ways. It’s weird, I know, but they really probably were our very own Beatles. That, at least, is my excuse. 

 

THE ESSENTIAL SMITHS :- MY SUGGESTED 20 GOLDEN LIGHTS

 

There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ From ‘The Queen Is Dead’ album [1986]

Accept Yourself’ From ‘This Charming Man’, 12-inch single [1983]

Rubber Ring’ From ‘The Boy With The Thorn In His Side’, 12-inch single, [1985]

This Charming Man’ Single [1983]

Sheila, Take A Bow’ Single [1987]

The Headmaster Ritual’ From ‘Meat is Murder’ album [1985]

This Night Has Opened My Eyes’ From ‘Hatful Of Hollow’ album [1984]

William, It Was Really Nothing’ Single [1984]

Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What  I Want’ From ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’ single, [1984]

I Won’t Share You’ From ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’ album, [1987]

Cemetery Gates’ From ‘The Queen Is Dead’ album, [1986]

Well, I Wonder’ From ‘Meat Is Murder’ album, [1985]

Is It Really So Strange ?’ From ‘Sheila, Take A Bow’ single [1987]

Hand in Glove’ Single [1983]

I Know It’s Over’ From ‘The Queen Is Dead’ album, [1986]

Asleep’ From ‘The Boy With The Thorn In His Side’ single [1985]

Death Of A Disco Dancer’ From ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’ album [1987]

Shoplifters Of The World Unite’ Single [1987]

Reel Around The Fountain’ From ‘The Smiths’ album, [1984]

Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me’ From ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’ album, [1987]