The Brilliant Trees

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.

DOLORES O’RIORDAN: 1971 – 2018.

During the first series of the RTÉ music show, ‘No Disco’, the presenter, Donal Dineen and myself travelled west to Limerick on a couple of occasions to pick up long interviews that we’d use to populate what was, in essence, a niche video clip show. And because the show didn’t have a bob in its budget, our filming model – if we had one – was based on piggy-backing regional news gathering units and working in tandem with the often irregular schedules of some of the RTÉ correspondents who were based outside of Dublin.

And this worked for the most part, at least during those early days, even if we routinely left high-profile musicians and songwriters hanging-on indefinitely in hotel lobbies and cafés while we awaited the return of a veteran film crew from the scene of a crash or a local political press jaunt.

On December 17th, 1993, The Cranberries were back in Limerick, their home-town, where, having recently become the first Irish band to sell one million copies of a debut album in America, they were being feted by the city council, local dignitaries, hail fellas and the great and the good of the local social circuit. At that time Limerick’s physical heart, like many other large Irish cities, was ailing and in need of urgent renovation and an infusion of imagination and renewal. And its reputation wasn’t helped either by cheap national stereotyping.

But not too far beneath the surface, Limerick was far more a fab city than Stab City, and this was nowhere more apparent than in its emerging alternative music scene which, for at least ten years from the early 1980s onwards, was as energetic and diverse as anywhere in the country, and often far moreso. If Tuesday Blue and Toucandance maybe set the early pace, and while The Cranberries would eventually become the focus, the real heavy lifting was done for years by distinctive, urgent pop groups like The Hitchers, They Do It With Mirrors, Those Stilted Boys and A Touch Of Oliver. To this day, the music they produced between them during that period provides a formidable soundtrack to a formidable city of formidable people.

I’ve written previously about that scene and I consistently return to it to remind myself of the prominent gulf that existed at this time between some of the loftier aspects of Dublin’s music establishment and those movers and groovers who emerged and took shape far from it. And often in spite of it. From 1988 until 1994, give or take, easily the most breathtaking and enthralling new Irish music was being stewed far from the capital, and it was easy to understand how and why.

Without the distraction of the maddening crowd, removed from the lazy sloganeering and what could often be an insidious and self-celebratory circuit, a handful of bands emerged from around Ireland that displayed as instinctive a grasp of the potential of sheer pop dynamics as they did brass neck. They were bonded, not by geography or [dis]location, but by a shared sense that they neither knew better or cared less.

They crawled from Larne, Downpatrick, Enniskillen, Limerick, Galway and Cork and, the sterling, energetic fumes of a selection of local promoters, hacks, hangers-on and the odd national radio producer apart, were left largely to their own devices. At least until such time as the pennies dropped – literally – and, on the back of positive press abroad and genuine label deals for Therapy?, Ash, The Divine Comedy, The Cranberries, Toasted Heretic, The Sultans of Ping F.C. and The Frank And Walters, this crack squad ceased to be mere disconnected curiosities [‘there’s something in the water, boys’] and, instead became attractive propositions in many different aspects. Unlike many of their better-known, over-hyped Dublin-sponsored contemporaries who, to me at least, seemed to often exist in name only.

Donal Dineen fetched up in Limerick that afternoon, December 1993, for a pre-arranged exchange with Dolores O’Riordan and Fergal Lawlor, The Cranberries’ enigmatic singer and lyricist and practical pulse, respectively. The interview, which was aired on ‘No Disco’ in early 1994, had been arranged to coincide with the broader hometown celebration of the returning minstrels. To which they responded with typical courtesy and no little bafflement: for the band, it was an opportunity to thank their parents and their road-crew in the presence of their peers.

Fresh off of what could often be a torturous train ride from Cork, Donal dutifully bode his time until RTÉ’s mid-West correspondent, Cathy Halloran, had completed her own filming, satisfied that she had enough raw material for the two-minute report on the triumphant return of The Cranberries she was filing for that evening’s Six One News. At which point the master went to work.

Dolores was instantly taken by Donal’s choice of trouser: he was kitted out in one of his preferred ensembles of the time, a serious designer hoodie and salmon-pink corduroys. And as opening gambits go, ‘I love your pants’, delivered in the singer’s trademark Ballybricken accent, became one of the more memorable ice-breakers from the entire ‘No Disco’ canon. One million albums sold, still not caring less.

But Donal had been formidably briefed and knew well what he was dealing with. I’d enjoyed a long-running game of fox and hounds with The Cranberries and, without ever enjoying their patronage or breaching their inner circle, just wrote glowingly and consistently about them wherever and whenever I could. I was also, in a roundabout way, attempting to coax them onto the growing roster at Keith Cullen’s fledgling label, Setanta Records and, as I did so, I kept encountering some of the major, London-based scouts – Premier League opposition – in the most unlikely venues in the country. All of us chasing the same thing.

By now I’d profiled The Cranberries for the first time in Hot Press magazine, reviewed their stunning set at Cork Rock 1991 for the same publication and also for what was then The Cork Examiner [where, alarmingly, I managed to make a prediction that was to hold water] and saw them live in The College Bar in University College Cork and The Stables in what is now the University of Limerick campus, both times to what was general audience indifference.

I saw them live in The Shelter, a small patched-together venue on Cork’s Tuckey Street, on a magical bill assembled by Shane Fitzsimons and although they often appeared fragile and nervous, I just felt from early that Noel, Mike and Fergal were still just learning their instruments. And while Dolores may indeed have been socially awkward – she was a teenager – I never fell for the line that she was overly shy. The Cranberries knew well how to gild the lily.

And of course Dolores had already mastered her instrument: her voice, from the off, was heaven sent and, behind her, the boys were playing perennial catch-up. That learning process went on for several years, during which time the band was forced to grow up quickly and adjust or be lost. And any claims that The Cranberries landed fully-formed is just wrong: the facts see that off.

The first sessions for their debut album, ‘Everybody Else Is Doing It So Why Can’t We ?’ were junked and the producer, Pearse Gilmore, who also managed The Cranberries [a reveal in itself] was dropped from both portfolios. The singles lifted from that record, ‘Linger’ and ‘Dreams’ were all but ignored, as was the album itself when it was first released in March, 1993. An early, holding E.P. for Island Records, ‘Uncertain’, was critically panned and while the band was always assured of a warm welcome back in Limerick, they were still a difficult and niche sell outside of it. One live show at Dublin’s Rock Garden during this time was attended by a score of paying punters.

By any critical standards, The Cranberries were far from the best band to emerge from Ireland during the early 1990s. Indeed, to my mind, they were far from the best band to emerge from Limerick. But they went on to become the biggest and the brightest of them all because, at their core, they had Dolores, whose voice and whose personality masked a multitude.

On the weekend of my twenty-third birthday in June, 1991, I saw fifteen of Ireland’s best emerging young bands perform over three nights as part of the Cork Rock shindig at the fabled Sir Henry’s venue in Cork city. The Cranberries performed half-way up the bill on the second night, surrounded on either side by the bulkier, more sophisticated and ultimately faceless pop sound of The Chelsea Drugstore [featuring Colin and Peter Devlin] and The Brilliant Trees, the terrific Finglas guitar band.

The Cranberries stood out because they didn’t physically stand out at all. And of the fifteen participating acts, they were one of only two – the other being the jazzy, swing-pop act, Bird – to feature a woman.

She was from another world altogether. Then, now and forever.

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.

 

 

‘IF YOU COULDN’T PERSUADE HENRY’S, YOU DIDN’T MATTER WHERE IT MATTERED’

Sign

Image courtesy of Theresa Lucey

 

This post first appeared last year on the blog for the Sir Henrys 2014 Exhibition held at Boole Library, University College Cork. It is reproduced here in full.

 

I can’t remember the first time I set foot inside Sir Henrys and I can’t remember the last time either but I remember clearly where the rose was sown.

 

I was a weedy teenager during the summer of 1982 [and for several other summers thereafter] when my father arranged a part-time job for me, my first. For eight weeks I stacked shelves and packed shopping bags, without any great distinction, in Roches Stores on Patrick Street. On my first day I was assigned to the biscuit aisle ;- on my second, to stack sanitary towels in the female toiletries section. I was asked by one of my co-workers – an older man whose hands were pock-marked with Indian ink – if I’d ever been ‘inside’. I was a teenage boy from Blackpool and, even thirty years ago, it was an obvious question.

 

Before the end of the summer I’d struck up with another pair of part-timers who made like they knew their music. One was obsessed with a nascent Dublin group called U2 and appeared to have form. He wore a bouffant centre parting in his hair, managed regularly by twin combs, clearly in honour of the band’s drummer. The other seemed to know quite a bit about Ireland’s darker underbelly. Dave Fanning, Hot Press, hash. Such things.

 

There was loose banter in the store-room one day about Sir Henry’s, with which both of my colleagues were familiar. There was a framed U2 poster to one side of the venue, apparently. Signed by the band. U2 liked Cork and someone’s relation helped them to set up their drums. I’d regularly seen Sir Henry’s from the outside. Hadden’s Bakery on North Main Street was on my family’s regular beat and, in the days long before paid parking, we’d frequently pull the car up outside. The place looked like a right toilet, but I never imagined that it would look even worse on the inside.

 

Myself and my friends were regulars at Sir Henry’s from around 1987 until 1994, when I left Cork for good. It was somewhere we went to hear live music and see bands, good, bad and often un-naturally ugly. Back then, when we knew nothing and cared less, music meant the world. And Sir Henry’s was one of the foundation blocks.

 

The place hosted some truly memorable nights and some remarkable live shows and, even at a distance of twenty five years I can clearly recall the most minor moments of some of the better ones.

 

In terms of Irish bands, it was in Sir Henry’s that Power of Dreams, The Sultans, The Franks, Engine Alley, The Subterraneans and Therapy? flowered in their pomp. It was in Henry’s too that arguably the finest and most perpetually ignored of them all, Into Paradise, played like their necks were on the line to a meagre scattering of, maybe, fifty people at a push. If anything captured their career in a snapshot, it was the continued indifference of Cork audiences. If you couldn’t persuade Henry’s, you didn’t matter where it mattered. Sir Henry’s could be cold and unforgiving and, while many were called, only the few were eventually annointed.

 

The Blue Angels being a particular case in point. Blue In Heaven were contemporaries and peers of Into Paradise from Churchtown, a suburb in South Dublin. A dirty and easily detonated live act, they found particular favour in Cork, and amongst the Sir Henry’s frontline especially.

 

Most of Blue In Heaven eventually evolved into a more considered and mildly diverting sub-species, The Blue Angels. But the Sir Henry’s crowd were having none of it and more or less refused to acknowledge they existed. The Blue Angels were famously sent packing for Dublin to the sound of one man clapping. They were a fickle crowd, the Henry’s lot.

 

But they adored their own too and I can still feel the fuzzy urgency with which my favourite Cork bands went about their thing on the live stage at Sir Henry’s [although plenty of other business was conducted off-stage too]. LMNO Pelican – who I later had the pleasure of producing – were restless, busy and catchy. I remember encountering a nervous and sensibly sober Brendan Butler for the first time, the Pelican’s drummer and heartbeat. ‘Alright player’, he opened, before heading straight to the gut of the matter :- he was chasing a critical view on a new Guadalcanal Diary compilation. We lost Brendan at a desperately young age in February, 2013 and its only right and proper that, in any potted history of Cork music, he is appropriately remembered and acknowledged. Rest easily, champ.

 

I concede now, as I did very openly then, to a soft-spot for local bands like The Bedroom Convention, Lift, Benny’s Head, Treehouse, Real Mayonnaise and The How And Why Insects, who later became Starchild and Crystal. These were the names that stood out then like they still do so now, a rangey peleton of domestiques in support of the prestige riders, lead by Cypress, Mine !, Burning Embers and The Belsonic Sound.

 

Of the blow-ins, my strongest recollections include live shows by Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Pavement, The Wedding Present, Babes In Toyland, The Sisters Of Mercy and That Petrol Emotion. It still rankles that I never saw either Microdisney or The Fatima Mansions live in Sir Henry’s :- in the great traditions of Cork politics, The Fatima Mansions tended to favour De Lacy House while Microdisney [although I first saw them support Depeche Mode in The City Hall in 1982] and me just didn’t have our clocks in sync and they’d fled Ireland years before I’d ventured out of Blackpool.

 

But while Sir Henry’s could destroy even the most vaunted of visitors, the inverse could be true too. Transvision Vamp played there once and, to my mind, blew the place limb from limb. ‘I wanna be your dog’ roared a leery drunk from the front row at the lead singer. ‘Woof woof’, responded Wendy James, as she sank a prozzie’s heel into his snout.

 

To my mind, Sir Henry’s rightful reputation as the country’s best live music venue bar-none was franked and sealed over three consecutive nights during the Summer of 1991. Facilitated through the offices of Ian Wilson and his team at Radio 2FM, Cork Rock was an annual shindig that assembled fifteen of the country’s best, aspiring and unsigned bands and flashed them in short-set form to sussed audiences speckled with talent spotters flown in – on generous expenses – from Britain and elsewhere.

 

The line-up in 1991 tells its own story and, among those bucks who faced the starter’s gun were The Frank And Walters, The Sultans Of Ping F.C., The Cranberries, Therapy?, The Brilliant Trees and Toasted Heretic.

 

It was, without question, the single most exhilirating weekend I can recall in my short, personal relationship with Sir Henry’s. And I still meet friends and acquaintances, now well into their forties and beyond, who legitimately lay claim to having been there before the finest generation of young Irish bands ever took flight with The Man.

 

Work subsequently took me to many more live venues all over Britain and Europe throughout the 1990s. And with a fresh perspective it was clear to me that, whatever we thought back then, Sir Henry’s was in many ways less artifice and more franchise. Every city that assumes a love of new music and a fostering of new acts has venues that sound, look and smell like Henry’s used to do at its peak. London, Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Paris, New York.

 

In hindsight, Sir Henry’s was where the more intense kids went after they’d outgrown the secondary school disco and re-calibrated their ambitions. To me, one of the venue’s primary attractions was that it was on our doorstep [and not in Dublin] and, to those of us who, by 1986 and 1987 had grown into angry young men and women, this was of no little import.

 

My fellow traveller at this time was a friend I’d met in school, Philip Kennedy. During the summers from 1982 onwards, we’d started another, far more attractive form of rote learning and, in so doing, developed a love of Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, Prefab Sprout, REM and, memorably, the frenetic political jangle of McCarthy [Morty McCarthy [no relation], was the key dealer here].

 

We spent our evenings swapping albums, battered cassettes, taped radio programmes, bootlegs and even demos. It was through Philip [and his regular dealer, Morty] that I first heard the famous first Frank And Walters demo, a tape that genuinely blew me away and which kick-started a long-standing connection that endures to this day.

 

It was Philip who, while I was away in America in 1988, harrassed Ciaran O’Tuama, then manning Comet Records with Jim O’Mahony, on a regular basis about a likely release date for the second Cypress, Mine ! album. That record, which is magnificent, has still to see the light of day, although I remain hopelessly optimistic, as I always did for that band.

 

Phil and myself hung out into the long summer nights on the railings outside his house on Saint Mary’s Road, by Neptune Stadium, talking the big music. Or just talking big about music. In our heads we cut an artsy dash along Redemption Road as we ferried our albums, always under-arm, for everyone to see. In reality, our parents may have hoped this was all just a fad, a passing thing. Sir Henrys became a natural extension of those nights, but it wasn’t the only one. My own favourite Cork venue was Mojos. Or De Lacy House. Or The Shelter. Or, briefly, The Underground, down a side alley around the back of Roches Stores. It was there that I once saw Sindikat, one of my favourite ever Cork bands, comprised mostly of past pupils of our old school. I may even have seen The Stars of Heaven there, a band who, had their store of stellar notices converted to sales, could have retired to stud after the release of their first album, ‘Speak Slowly’. Philip passed away on April 28th, 2006. He hadn’t yet turned 40 years of age and I never hear a cracking new album or see a storming new live band without thinking of how he’d so forensically de-construct them. And he was sharp and funny with it too.

 

One night we encountered Margaret Dorgan on Parnell Bridge ;- she was off to see a local band, The Pretty Persuasions, in The Phoenix. Margaret shared her concerns for the band’s well-being, worried that there might be were too many ‘posers’ in the audience.

 

‘The only posers there’, Philip told her, ‘will be on the stage’.

 

He was there at my elbow for years, through the good times and the even better times. He saw Sir Henry’s claim its many trophies and also bury a hell of a lot of bands who simply couldn’t cut muster. From wherever he is now, he knows where the bodies lie and, more importantly, why Sir Henry’s took shovels to their crowns.