The Cranberries

THE SAWDOCTORS: ACTING THE SHAM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GIDDY-UP

Photo : Greg Canty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOST IN MUSIK

Our recent post about Roddy Frame took me down into a rabbit hole that led, eventually to Tony Mansfield, the songwriter and producer who played a small and largely forgotten role in the Aztec Camera story. But about whom details are a bit scant.

I first came across Tony because of his band, New Musik, one of the more curious footnotes to the poppier end of the new wave story. And whose signature pop songs – like those of Martha And The Muffins, The Vapors and The Lotus Eaters – detonated without warning from our three-in-ones during those years when we were trying to determine the differences between good, bad and ugly. Decades later and I’m still unable to fully shake ‘Echo Beach, ‘Turning Japanese’ and ‘The First Picture Of You’, the most pressing, gold-plated bangers of the period. Indeed, I can still recite the lyrics to Cliff Richard’s ‘Wired For Sound’ even though I often struggle to remember my daughters’ middle-names.

New Musik was Tony’s band, more or less, and it’s hard to think of them as anything other than a group of session players, at their most comfortable within the studio walls, who fell into the one groove and released a run of excellent, synth-built pop singles as the 1970s cross-faded into the 80s. ‘Straight Lines’, ‘Living By Numbers’, ‘This World Of Water’ and ‘On Islands’ are easily the pick of them and turn up now, the very odd time, on those BBC4 re-runs of vintage ‘Top Of The Tops’. Where New Musik are perennially stuck just outside of the Top Thirty, forever bubbling under.

The spelling of the band name isn’t the only thing that dates them. In the most primal traditions of popular music, they defined the moment – or certainly took a reckless enough swing at it – in their coloured blazers, geeky specs, cute bow ties and with their battery of electronic kit. And like most others from that period – Kate Bush, Blondie and Buzzcocks excepted, naturally – look faintly ridiculous with it. In most of the on-line clips pirated from various television archives – and there isn’t a huge amount – keyboard player, Clive Gates, in his horned rims and hunched over the plate of tits and knobs on his Prophet synth, looks like a skinny Frankenstein hooked up to a mind-altering device.

Out front, centre-mid, Mansfield himself looks like Frankie Gavin from De Danann in an out-sized pair of Clark Kent’s glimmers while the well-assembled, bearded bassist, Tony Hibbert preferred the more minimal, barely breathing look – another pose du jour – that, on one television archive clip, has him miming his basslines with one hand clung inside the pocket of his trousers. With an excellent drummer, Phil Towner, completing their number, the eventual New Musik line-up reads like the spine of a typical Ipswich Town line-up during their pomp years under the late Bobby Robson from 1980 until 1982.

New Musik’s sound – layered synthetic keyboard lines and toothsome vocal harmonies spooned over old school acoustic foundations – has dated better than their look, just about. But although they never enjoyed the same level of success as some of their peers – Buggles, Naked Eyes and A Flock of Seagulls loosely fit the same bill although all of them were far more defined and rounded – that string of singles certainly cut a dash. And created, for their writer, a spring-board from where Mansfield launched a career as a fine pop producer with good ears. ‘Such a digital lifetime’, he sang on ‘Living By Numbers’, the band’s biggest-selling single even if, in reality, New Musik’s best known material has more in common with Owen Paul’s version of Marshall Crenshaw’s ‘My Favourite Waste Of Time’ than with the ground-shifting European electronica of Can and Kraftwerk.

With my own radar starting to locate regular targets, I took to New Musik with the same gusto as I did the likes of Adam and the Ants, Gary Numan, John Foxx and Squeeze. To the point that 1978 is defined, for me, by Charlie McCarthy’s speech after Cork won the All-Ireland hurling final win and Pete Shelley’s last vocal line on Buzzcocks’ ‘What Do I Get’.

New Musik looked as other-worldly as they sounded on my over-worked three-in-one: even within the pages of Smash Hits they seemed to forever occupy the hard shoulder, and this only added to their lustre. [We know now, of course, that New Musik didn’t just spring up over-night. Three of them had been involved with The Nick Straker Band who, marching in tandem, enjoyed a 1980 hit single with ‘A Walk In The Park’. While Phil Towner had played the drum parts on Buggles’ imperious ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’].

New Musik released three albums but all of their best known songs appear on the band’s fine debut, ‘From A To B’. ‘Anywhere’ [1981] is the bridge to their final, and easily most interesting elpee, ‘Warp’, a far more tech-skewed record, featuring a clutch of instrumentals and released in 1983. By which stage Towner and Hibbert were gone and Mansfield was basically directing the operation from behind a Fairlight synthesiser.

The earliest Fairlight* was an extravagant, pricey and unquestionably game-changing piece of digital technology that enabled users to ‘sample’ or record acoustic sounds [instruments, vocals and percussion] – rather than electronically ‘synthesise’ them – and then play these back at different pitches.

Its first iteration came onto the market at the same time that New Musik were getting their act together. Subsequent versions featured sequencing and workstation capabilities, offering revolutionary sound palettes that were quickly embraced by many of those more comfortable working on their own or in more considered surrounds, off the road. Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Buggles [there’s a sub-plot emerging here, isn’t there?] and Thomas Dolby were primary among them, taken by the potential and the self-sufficiency that came with what was an unwieldly piece of kit.

Tony Mansfield was another of those early adapters and his fondness for, and proficiency with the Fairlight can be heard, not just on New Musik’s material but on the many subsequent production projects he took on after the curtain fell on his band following the release of the ‘Warp’ elpee in 1983. And nowhere more so than on Aztec Camera’s ‘Walk Out To Winter’, which he re-recorded and produced later that same year.

The original version of ‘Walk Out To Winter’ appears on Aztec Camera’s debut album, ‘High Land, Hard Rain’, and was produced by Bernie Clarke and John Brand. Brand followed a pretty standard career trajectory and worked first as a jobbing studio engineer on sessions with the likes of XTC and Magazine before going on to produce The Waterboys’ ‘A Pagan Place’ and The Go-Betweens’ ‘Before Hollywood’ elpees. Himself and Clarke, a keyboard player and arranger who also features on a couple of those earlier Go-Betweens albums, certainly succeeded in nailing the raw confidence in that early collection of Aztec Camera songs even if, as can often be the case with first albums, some of the excellent material sounded callow enough once it was committed to wax.

During the decades of insanity when the music industry was awash with more money and cocaine than cop-on, the recording process could often be grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unregulated. Far too many records, especially those pitched at the higher end of the commercial market, went through scores of executives, marketing heads and assorted flunkeys who would often insist on priority material being re-visited, re-mixed and re-recorded. Often for legitimate, quality-related reasons and often not.

The Smiths’ debut album, also recorded in 1983 for the Rough Trade label, was famously re-recorded from scratch and, even after the band switched producers – John Porter for Troy Tate – the album still managed to sound hollow and far more underwhelming than the band sounded on their first singles or live in concert. Closer to home, The Frank And Walters’ ‘After All’ and the sweeping ‘This Is Not A Song’ were both was re-recorded after the Edwyn Collins-produced originals were deemed, rightly in my view, to lack the sparkle and urgency of the band’s earlier material.

The initial, Pearse Gilmore-produced sessions for the first Cranberries album were scrapped and, after a trial period with Stephen Street, the project was eventually re-started from the floor up. The making of the second An Emotional Fish album, ‘Junk Puppets’, was another protracted affair that went through numerous hands, locations and producers and, invariably, cost an arm and a leg. The final cut was produced by Alan Moulder [the brooding, guitar-heavy parts] and Clive Langer [the more up-beat, instant parts], while David Stewart was later enlisted to add confetti canons and balloon drops to a couple of key cuts on what is, to my mind, a formidable and largely under-rated album.

It’s Tony Mansfield’s version of ‘Walk Out To Winter’ with which most of you will be familiar, even if the single failed to do the chart business expected of it and the band remained on the margins until the re-issue of the breezy ‘Oblivious’ towards the end of 1983. And it’s a version that, as you’d expect, has long divided opinion among Aztec Camera watchers, many of whom have stayed steadfast to the tender opening strum of the original.

The primary differences between the two versions are in the first four bars, where Mansfield adds a distinctive intro, and the broader Fairlight-derived scaffolding he uses to bolster the foundations throughout, devices familiar to fans of New Musik, where they were used liberally. These bespoke sounds, touches and finishes can also be heard, in variously evolved form, across most of the subsequent production work Tony over-saw after New Musik folded. Most notably The B52s’ album, ‘Bouncing Off The Satellites’ [1986], Naked Eyes’ cover of the Bacharach and David number, ‘[There’s] Always Something There To Remind Me’ and Captain Sensible’s ‘Glad It’s All Over’, which he co-wrote and which charted in 1984.

But as a producer, Mansfield is probably best known for his contribution to the first A-ha elpee, ‘Hunting High And Low’, which was recorded in Pete Townsend’s Eel Pie Studio in Twickenham in 1984. The Norwegian band had relocated to London the previous year, from where they became one of the great, defining pop groups of that decade, selling over eleven million copies of their debut album. And although he takes a producer’s credit on nine of the cuts on ‘Hunting High And Low’, the relationship between the producer and the band – or perhaps the record company? – wasn’t a wholly positive one and, after six weeks, he was off the job. But only after he’d taken an early stab at the song that would later become A-ha’s breakthrough single, ‘Take On Me’.

The song was subsequently re-recorded by Alan Tarney and, supported by a distinctive, semi-animated promotional video, gave the band its first chart success. Tarney, a noted songwriter and musician – he was a member of The Shadows at one point during the 1970s – had written and produced Cliff Richard’s ‘We Don’t Talk Anymore’ and, in several key respects, was cut from the same cloth as Tony Mansfield. ‘Wrapped in warm synths, propelled by shiny hard guitar, hits like ‘Take On Me’ and Cliff Richard’s ‘Wired For Sound’ are the essence of the Alan Tarney sound’, wrote Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley as part of a Guardian feature piece in 2015. And he’d have known better than anyone; – Tarney produced ‘You’re In a Bad Way’ for Stanley’s group, Saint Etienne, over twenty years previously.

In an interview with ‘Sound On Sound’ magazine in March, 2011, Tarney, who also co-wrote and produced Cliff’s imperious ‘Wired For Sound’ and later sprinkled the glitter on terrific pop songs by the likes of Dream Academy, Barbara Dickson, Squeeze, Bow Wow Wow and Pulp – told Richard Buskin that ‘the Tony Mansfield version [of ‘Take On Me’] employed a Fairlight and it just didn’t sound like A-ha at all’. ‘All I did was recreate the original demo. Its ingredients were good – nothing was really wrong other than it just didn’t quite sound like a finished record’.

And, he continued: – ‘I actually worked with Tony on another project, so I knew what to expect. At that time he was totally a Fairlight man and I can imagine why Warners [A-ha’s record company] felt his version wasn’t quite right’.

‘Hunting High And Low’ went on to break A-ha worldwide and Alan Tarney was back on duty with them on their next two albums, ‘Scoundrel Days’ and ‘Stay On These Roads’. They never worked with Tony Mansfield again.

*My thanks, as usual, to one of my own favourite producers, Chris O’Brien, who I besiege with technical and sound queries and who, in this instance, put me right about the Fairlight. And without whom etc …

APPENDIX

We received a number of comments on this piece. One comment came from John Dundon who mentioned having come across a great article in Record Collector. He dug it out, scanned it and sent on. We now share that here. If you enjoyed our piece, you should really enjoy this piece. Thanks John…

Record Collector
Record Collector

Record Collector
Record Collector
Record Collector

THE HITCHERS

 

After the premature death of Dolores O’Riordan in London last January, many of the reflective pieces written in the immediate aftermath – the one posted here included – referenced the scarcely believable formative days of the band she led, The Cranberries, and the terrific local scene in Limerick from which they emerged during the first flushes of the 1990s. It’s a well-worn story by now and, like many other yarns from Irish history,  is prone to hi-jacking. But the band’s developmental phase – was it weeks, was it months, was it never ? – when they traded as The Cranberry Saw Us, inevitably traces back to another band, The Hitchers. And, specifically, to that group’s long-time mainstay and heartbeat, Niall Quinn.

 

In keeping with the spirit of the time, and Niall’s finely-honed indie smarts, he briefly had a foot in both camps. And it’ll be forever recorded that, for better or worse, he was the lead singer in the band that eventually became The Cranberries, before he left to lend his considerable song-writing heft to The Hitchers instead. Even in the most basic telling of that story, its easy to be side-blinded by the obvious and to cast our hero as a local unfortunate whose Lotto numbers came through just as his dog was eating his dream ticket. But that does scant justice to The Hitchers who, on their own steam, are as important players in the history of popular music in Limerick as any, and moreso than probably most.

 

Last week, off the back of a fresh chapter in the band’s long alliance with the writer, broadcaster and indie enthusiast, Steve Lamacq, they dusted themselves down and re-assembled for another short tour of some of Ireland’s better live music venues. And why not ?

 

Those who’ve ever dabbled in music, and who ever aspired to completing an original composition or mounting, even once, a live stage somewhere, will understand those visceral impulses better than most. Fundamentally, the creation of noise with a group of friends and like-minds is just great fun even if, once music manhandles you onto the merry-go-round, it can be impossible to stop the lights and get off.

 

The recent release of ‘Steve Lamacq’s Lost 90s’, a double album featuring one of The Hitchers’ signature cuts, ‘Strachan’, alongside tracks from Ride, Teenage Fanclub, Travis and the myriad of moderately left-field groups long associated with the one-time fanzine editor and BBC Radio mainstay, has nudged the band back to life, however briefly, and notwithstanding how match fit they might actually be. I doff my hat to them either way.

 

I first encountered the band on a Saturday afternoon in 1989, on-stage in the musty theatre of an old school on one of Limerick city’s main drags. They were half way up a forgettable bill at one of the heats of a nationwide school band competition run by the Cork promoter and musician, Denis Desmond – not to be confused with etc – and to whom, in a moment of extreme weakness, I’d offered to help out with the assessments and judging.

 

Denis shares a handle, perhaps unfortunately and maybe ultimately not, with the now global showrunner who’s basically owned live music in Ireland for the guts of thirty years now and from whom, name apart, he couldn’t be further removed. And so while one of them was in the court of Michael Lowry and planning the first Trip To Tipp – the live Féile event that ran for a number of years in Semple Stadium and that, one could realistically argue, elevated him into the ranks of serious competition – the other was manfully working the school circuit as part of a perennial search for emerging talent.

 

And who, with a dedicated band of helpers – the unflappable live soundmen, Tony Healy and Mick Finnegan, and my late friend, Philip Kennedy, among them – spent his days organizing get-in times for moderately creative and often mannerless school-goers. Most of whom were struggling with basic scale-work and a handful of whom grasped the concept of tuning.

 

The Hitchers were imperious in such company, clearly playing way beyond their own age group ;– barely out of the nursery and already on the fringes of a minor panel, ear-marked from early as likely inter-county material. And as can often be the case with the prodigious ones, they were cocky enough with it too even if, for the most part, their savvy pop-songs were in line with the breadth of their self-confidence.

 

That first iteration was a five-piece one led, from the front, by a long-haired singer, Eoin O’Kelly, who’d often take the stage in bare-feet and who, on a clear day, looked like Neil, the drippy hippy played by Nigel Planer in the 1980s Channel 4 sit-com, The Young Ones. And powered from behind the traps by Niall himself who, from my reading of it, clearly determined the whole operation, even if the writing credits, at that stage, were shared around the band. Whose number was completed by guitarists Andy and Benny – more Bonehead and Noel than Gorham and Robertson – and the fancifully-fringed bassist, Hoss Carney, who gave their sharp, slightly left-leaning pop songs real clout.

 

Compounding their instinctive pop savvy with the back-bar wit of Half Man, Half Biscuit and any one of a number of indie-skewing regulars, its safe to say that, even as callow teenagers, The Hitchers made a terrific racket.

 

And Limerick was the place for it, too. Ten odd years previously, a young Dublin band called The Hype were well down the road to transition when, on March 18th, 1978, they claimed the laurels at ‘Pop 78’, a now legendary talent contest sponsored by Harp Lager and The Evening Press and run at Limerick’s Stella Ballroom as part of that year’s Civic Week. Arriving in what many believe to have been bass-player Adam’s father’s swish motor as boys, The Hype departed back the road to Dublin as men. Or, as some of you may know them now, U2.

 

The Hitchers would have been as aware of that story as they would have been of the terminal lack of cool that accompanied competitions for bands and talent shows generally. But a decade removed, they were part of an emerging generation that was much more self-sufficient and far less dependent on the more traditional mechanics of the industry. Alongside the likes of A Touch of Oliver, Those Stilted Boys and They Do It With Mirrors, they were part of a fledgling set that evolved, to a considerable degree, around Pearse Gilmore’s studio and rehearsal facility at Xeric, out towards the railway station end of Limerick city. They saw that school band competition as an opportunity to win free recording time, appear on television and get a single out on the cheap, and as no more than that.

 

 

Beyond the puns, the word-plays and the on-stage tomfoolery was a hard edge, a strong grasp of the basics and a real sense of what they might achieve, and it was just folly to under-estimate them. ‘Alice Is Here’ [which appeared on a Xeric compilation album, ‘The Reindeer Age’], ‘Blame It On His Hormones’, ‘[There’s A Bomb In That Basket Of] Fruit’ and ‘Which Leg Of A Chicken Is More Tender’ might not have unduly troubled long-time Prefab Sprout or Steely Dan collectors but, beyond the titles were fine, abrasive pop songs that suggested genuine potential.

 

From my reserved seat in that empty school theatre – a metaphor for much of my own life – I knew I’d seen the victors. The Hitchers were a formidable outfit and I saw nothing else in that competition, the heats of which went on for an eternity, that laid a glove on them. And so it was no surprise when, the following Easter, at the conclusion of the Coca Cola-sponsored final, held in Connolly Hall in Cork, they took the spoils back down the N20.

 

And I don’t think it did the band any harm, either, even if it eventually took them five or six years to realistically find their feet. That scene from which they took root was clearly a pretty exceptional one and I stand over my long-held view that not only were the nascent Cranberries not the best young band in Ireland, they were far from the best young band in Limerick too. Its just that they found their way quicker and enjoyed more good fortune than some of the others. And of course Dolores gave them the luster, and the story, that cut them apart from the pack.

 

The world had changed irrevocably by the time that The Hitchers released their debut album, ‘Its All Fun And Games Until Someone Loses An Eye’ on their own Murgatroid label in 1997. The Cranberries had bolted from the pack, were now an established international juggernaut and, already three albums into a career on a major label, had lapped the domestic competition long-since. And although a couple of their peers, A Touch Of Oliver and They Do It With Mirrors also sparkled briefly on the fringes and, for a while, kept the runaway leaders in their sights, The Hitchers had pulled up at the back of the field to re-fuel.

 

Eoin O’Kelly had moved to Cork to study philosophy and I’d meet him from time to time around the middle of town, where he’d up-date me on the band’s adventures. Or not, as the case often seemed to be. And then he was gone, a victim of the vagaries of real life – education, travel, personal ambition – and with Benny also gone overboard, the remainers took to the gym.

 

Andy and Niall took on vocal duties between them and ‘It’s All Fun And Games’, when it eventually saw the light of day, was very obviously buffed up and bulked out, even if the band’s core values were still intact. Crisp and wry, it dripped with spirit and smart writing that pulled variously from The Undertones, Buzzcocks and later period Sultans. And, unusually for an Irish release during this period, was singularly devoid of earnestness.

 

 

A lot of water had passed beneath Sarsfield Bridge in the years since The Hitchers and myself first got it on. But the release of that fine album, buttressed by the likes of ‘Killed It With My Bare Hands’ and ‘Strachan’ – ‘and then the greatest midfield artist of them all walked out onto the park’ – enabled us to re-engage the scrum, and I was only too glad to return to Limerick with a small RTÉ crew to capture the steady pace of the pilgrims’ journey.

 

I’d been busy enough myself, too. In the years since, I’d graduated from the edges of the late-night Network 2 television schedules via ‘No Disco’ to the fringes of the childrens and youths schedule, for which the late Kevin Linehan asked me to devise a music series for kids and teenagers. ‘Popscene’, presented by Suzanne Duffy, Pearse Lehane and Roisin Saxe, is rarely mentioned in the long and often bizarre history of RTÉ music television output – understandably so on one level, given its target audience was 8 to 15 year-olds – but its easily one of the best and most invigorating strands I’ve been across in the twenty-five years I’ve now spent at the national broadcaster. By anyone’s measure, we did good work on that show.

 

And so, buried somewhere in the archives, is a five minute report from Pearse, shot by my long-time wingman, Aidan McGuinness, about The Hitchers and their debut album, that was first broadcast on February 6th, 1998. Of course I needed no nudging to go back to Limerick either, and remember well a terrific day we spent with Niall in a couple of locations relevant to him. The studios at Xeric and the battered old stand at the decrepit ground at Rathbane, then the home to his local football team, Limerick FC – who were challenging for promotion from The League Of Ireland’s First Division – among them.

 

 

And after which we repaired to Xeric to record multiple takes of ‘You Can Only Love Someone So Much [But You Can Hate Them All The Way To Hell]’ – the one where the title of the song contains all of the lyrics in it – which bed-rocked the Popscene report and was subsequently completed as a stand-alone video for the band.

 

I haven’t seen Niall or any of the original band members since we went on that walkabout in Limerick twenty years ago, although the internet allows us to loosely track each other’s movements and, if not physically stay in touch, at least enables us to graph how well our children are performing at their sports or to see what we all got up to during the last mid-term break.

 

And it’s forever re-assuring to know that, like a host of others from way back, they’re all still out there, hale and healthy enough to stay at it whenever the mood takes them, and that Niall is still belting the biscuit tins like a demented caveman might hollow out a carcass. And that, when you re-open The Hitchers’ case-book and dust down the music, it still resonates enough to keep you down the rabbit hole for days.

 

I’ll forever be of the view too that, for whatever reason, they never fully enjoyed the credit they deserved or that their music warranted. Even if all of us are of an age now when absolutely none of that matters anymore.

 

Old soldiers, that’s what we are.

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.