The Divine Comedy

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.   

THIS IS NO DISCO

 

 

On Shrove Tuesday night, February 28th, 1995, I fetched up at Dublin’s  R.D.S. and, as I wound my way up the long avenue, in past the security hut and around the clusters of other invitees and liggers, my mind was cast back twelve months, back to a time when we were all a bit less sure on our feet. A handful of us had gathered to support our friend and colleague, Dónal Dineen: ‘No Disco’, the programme he reluctantly presented and the one that I enthusiastically but naively devised and produced was about to claim the Vincent Hanley Memorial Award at the Hot Press Music Critics’ Awards. Much to our surprise, we received one of the best receptions of the night, but then ‘surprise’ is a dominant theme throughout the early history of ‘No Disco’. 

Among the other winners that Pancake Night were A House, who took the gongs for ‘Best Single’ and ‘Best Video’ for ‘Endless Art’ and Terri Hooley, the Belfast maverick who, among other things, founded the Good Vibrations record shop and cajoled The Undertones through their labour. We were in good company and had come a long way in the fifteen months since ‘No Disco’ first stumbled onto the national airwaves at the end of September, 1993.

The Hot Press event was sponsored by one of the drinks companies, Smithwicks I think, and a few of us stayed around well into the night, Dónal apart. He doesn’t drink and, as long as I know him, has always  been in a rush to beat a hasty retreat. It was a strange old night as I recall it but an important one for the series on several levels. I’d been based in Dublin for the previous number of months, attending a full-time  training course out in RTÉ and, for practical reasons, just couldn’t keep going. I was reluctantly cutting my lingering ties with ‘No Disco’ and, by killing my darling, was doing the show a real favour.

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‘No Disco’ was first broadcast on Thursday night, September 30th, 1993, and ran for the guts of a decade. The decision by RTÉ to discontinue the programme certainly created far more of a stir than the decision to start it all in the first place and its fair to say that the series was held deliberately under the radar, regarded largely as more of a strategic and technical experiment than an editorial one. Far from being launched, the series just fell into the schedules, like a flutered old lag around the fringes of a hen night. Brian Boyd, writing in The Irish Times on the week before we aired the first episode, opened his preview as follows: ‘Oh dear, they’re at it again. RTÉ are putting on a new young person’s music programme – pass the remote control and make it quick’. And it was difficult to blame his cynicism, especially given how even some of our own colleagues, baffled by what we were trying to do, expected ‘No Disco’ to fail so miserably too.

Twenty-two years after we started work on the very first episode, I’m still routinely reminded of ‘No Disco’. To a generation of middle-aged, music-loving parents now dealing with their own surly teenage sons and daughters, I’ll forever be part of the reason they were so distracted way back, late on Thursday nights, on what was then Network 2. At various work and social events, weddings and funerals over the years, I’ve been subjected to all manner of loose conversation regarding Paul Weller, Tindersticks, Kristin Hersh, The Afghan Whigs and the many other flag- bearers who dominated the early ‘No Disco’ songbook. ‘Ah, ‘’twas a long time ago’, I say, flattered. ‘There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since’. And then I suck the remaining air out of whatever room I’m in. I never learn.

‘No Disco’ has always attracted an awful lot of old guff, and I’ve been responsible for much of it myself. What’s undeniable is that, once this quite bizarre series settled down, it became an appointment to view – or, to our sizeable student cohort, to record on VHS – for a loyal and perfectly deformed audience of anoraks, enthusiasts, freaks and those who had issues dealing with regular society. It was a public health service as much as it was a public service statement.

In hindsight, it was Philip Kampff, then an RTÉ television producer who,among other things, masterminded the Gerry Ryan/Lambo heist as part of Gay Byrne’s radio series and later devised The Lyrics Board, planted the first seeds. During the late 1980s, Philip had exploited the production facilities in RTÉ’s regional studios to help feed a monster children’s television series called ‘Scratch Saturday’. I’d been recruited as a free-lancer onto his programme staff, producing a weekly music slot from RTÉ Cork’s new, city centre base in Father Mathew Street. When, four years later – and after an exotic trip around the fringes of the music industry in London and beyond – I returned to my old desk in Cork and informed the small band of local technicians that we’d shortly be producing an hour of music television every week for national broadcast, I was laughed all the way back out to Blackpool.

‘No Disco’ formed the first part of a broader RTÉ commitment to what was then referred to as ‘regional broadcasting’. The production base in Cork has since expanded beyond all recognition and is a far cry from the empty shell in which we set up shop in August, 1993, both in terms of the quality and quantity of it’s output. And so the next time you see John Creedon take a retro vehicle on a scenic driving tour of Ireland, you can blame Dónal Dineen.

 

 

I was working with Jeff Brennan in The Rock Garden in Temple Bar in Dublin during the Summer of 1993 when I was summoned out to RTÉ to meet Eugene Murray. Eugene had been a former editor on Today Tonight and, now running RTÉ’s Presentation Division, believed we could produce cost-effective programming [or, if you prefer, no-budget television] from the skeleton facility in Cork, using the old ‘Scratch Saturday’ template and building on it. Having few other interests, commitments or concerns, I defaulted to what I knew best and, taking my cues variously from previous RTÉ music programmes like ‘MT USA’ and Dave Heffernan’s inserts into ‘Anything Goes’, I put together the most simple formula I could. Ten weeks later we were on air.

On the night of ‘No Disco’’s first transmission, a small group of us met up in Cork to mark what was possibly the closest the county had come to a modern miracle since the statues moved down in Ballinspittle. It was an enormous achievement to actually get the thing on air, all the more so given that neither Dónal or myself had the first idea what we were doing. Cockiness and mindless enthusiasm were always only going to get us so far and, while we were teething, we were often shovelled onto air by a support cast of notables who, I am sure, found the whole set-up quite erratic. I’ve thanked the likes of Tom McSweeney, Olan O’Brien, Antóin O’Callaghan, Tom Bannon and Déirdre O’Grady in the past and I’m doing it again here now: they rarely, if ever, feature in the ‘No Disco’ story. And yet in many respects, they are the first chapters of the ‘No Disco’ story.

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Between one thing and another, it was Marty Morrissey, now a well- known Gaelic Games broadcaster but then one of a number of young reporters billeted in RTÉ Radio Cork on Union Quay, who convinced Jurys Hotel on Western Road to allow us watch our debut programme go out on air from a vacant suite on their complex. The first video on the first programme was ‘Cannonball’ by The Breeders, but by the time we got to the ten minute Dead Can Dance segment, we’d lost the room. Marty barely made it past the opening sequence and, more an M.O.R. man than an A.R. Kane man, wasn’t entirely sure what he was seeing. We didn’t use credits at the end of the programme and, as the first hour wound down and we faded out into the closing RTÉ Cork logo, my friends and colleagues applauded politely and kindly. It was as if we’d been gathered in a courtroom and I’d just been acquitted of murder but found guilty of manslaughter. I wanted the mini-bar to open up and swallow me whole.

 

 

The really great things about ‘No Disco’ ultimately un-did it. Based outside of Dublin gave us a freedom and a licence to roam, more or less, as we wanted. We weren’t privvy to the carry-on in Montrose and I fancifully saw myself as a latter-day Wolfe Tone, a colonial outsider railing against the machine. Even though, on one level, my work was defined largely by that same machine.

I used to wonder what would have happened had senior RTÉ managers at the time had their way with ‘No Disco’ ? If, for instance, they had daily physical access to us ? Because after only four weeks on air, ‘No Disco’ was an issue: word filtered back to me that Dónal was a real concern, that the music policy was considered far too extreme and that ‘No Disco’ wasn’t really a broadcastable programme at all. But we held our ground – because, I guess, we could – put our heads down and just pedalled harder. I may not have always known what I was doing but I certainly knew what I wanted to do. And then The Irish Times came to the party.

Brian Boyd contributed a weekly column called ‘Hot Licks’ to the paper’s Friday morning arts and music coverage and, from very early on, was down enthusiastically with the series. Word seemed to be spreading, however slowly and, in the days before e-mail, we’d even received a trickle of correspondence from viewers by post. On one occasion the telephone in the office actually rang and a ‘fan’ was on the other end. We had other friends out there too, of course: Dónal Scannell was a fellow traveller and a loyal snout inside the belly of the beast in RTÉ while Áine Healy played a starring role as our administrative back-up in Dublin. Apart from Brian Boyd, we had other agents in the music pages too, all of whom sung our praises often and loudly. And it all helped. What ‘No Disco’ lacked in terms of audience numbers and branding support, it made up for with that rarest of commodities: real credibility among a small cohort who could see beyond the obvious.

And Dónal Dineen takes the credit here. I first encountered him through Dónal Scannell, back when we were publishing a free, monthly music paper in Dublin called DropOut. We shared a Southern sensibility and a keen interest in the GAA: we once spent seven consecutive nights crawling a range of Dublin’s flesh-pots for a feature called ‘It’s a Shame about Cabaret’ and were lucky to survive up in The Four Provinces in Ranelagh when we were turned on by a couple of young bucks from up the country somewhere.

Dónal was in the autumn of his club football career with his beloved Rathmore – he is a contemporary and clubmate of the former Kerry senior goalkeeper, Declan O’Keeffe – and our small production office would often resound with tales from the darker side of the dressing room. Years before Croke Park was re-developed and well before the advent of media boycotts, multiple sponsors, dieticians, head doctors and team flunkeys, Gaelic Games were hugely derided by some of the louder elements of the Dublin media set. Fine writers like Gerry McGovern were routinely dismissed because, with their ‘bog-ball’ and ‘stick-fighting’, they dared to be proud of what made them and maybe brought different values to the editorial tables. Dónal would have gladly swapped any number of Hot Press awards for an O’Donoghue Cup medal with Rathmore and that pursuit, for a time, was every bit as intense as they man himself and his long-running affair with sound.

It was during the course of a DropOut production weekend in a semi- detached house in Knocklyon that we first heard [and he became obsessed with] David Gray’s first album, ‘A Century Ends’, which had been submitted for review by one of the record companies. That was how humble the beginnings of that relationship were and it’s probably fair to say that the growth in David Gray’s popularity in Ireland owed, to a large degree, to the exposure he received on ‘No Disco’, where he was a mainstay. Over the course of the first eighteen months of the series, both David Gray and ‘No Disco’ found their feet, voice and audiences in tandem. And when Dónal Scannell brought Gray to Cork and Dublin for his first nervous live shows here, ‘No Disco’ was the primary driver for that.

 

 

It certainly wasn’t intentional and I didn’t really appreciate it at the time but, looking back now, the tone of the series – dislocated, informed, intense, regional, soft and considerate – was based entirely around Dónal’s personality. He’s by far the most reluctant and easily the most interesting ‘presenter’ I’ve worked with, most probably because he isn’t and never was a presenter in the first place. One of the many things that set him apart, and what disconcerted many of the ‘industry professionals’ who encountered him, was that he saw right through the medium and was absolutely discommoded by it. He never saw ‘No Disco’ as a stepping stone to a career in light entertainment but more of a stepping stone back into obscurity. He was everything he said he was and he had no side: he did what he did in the interests of quality music and, to that end, was always more emotionally comfortable and secure on radio, which was his real passion. And so I wasn’t overly surprised to see him unveiled alongside Eamonn Dunphy, Anne-Marie Hourihane and others as part of the first Radio Ireland line-up in 1997, where his late-night ‘Here Comes The Night’ programme was, for a number of years, an essential listen. My only surprise was that he managed to hang around there for so long.

Because there, as on ‘No Disco’, he really did give it all for the music he believed in, and maybe far too much sometimes. We’d routinely argue over set-lists for the show: he brought the sophistication, the breath of reference and the smarts and I brought the noise and the pale indie shapes. His scripts would often sparkle: Dónal’s writing owed more to Con Houlihan than to Nick Kent and he’d agonise and pore over every line. One of his best print pieces was actually about Gaelic football, a gorgeous personal essay he did about Rathmore for the Munster Football Final programme in July, 1995. ‘The special sense of community that arises from the sharing of dreams is a precious part of the life of place’, he wrote. It could have doubled as one of his softly-voiced introductions to a new Stina Nordenstam release or a lost Red House Painters track.

Some of our production priorities were far less romantic, though. Our cameramen and sound recordists were, at least during the early years, actually scheduled onto the RTE News service in Cork and, as happened once or twice, we’d have to abandon or suspend a planned shoot in the event of a news story breaking. It was all very laissez-faire but Joe and Tony McCarthy, Tony Cournane, Paul O’Flynn and Brian O’Mahony gave us sterling service over the years, as did Dónal and Jim Wylde, whenever they were sprung from the Waterford bureau and pressed into service, dispatched to take care of ‘the mad shit in Cork’.

But it was a slow process and, throughout those early months, we were viewed with a combination of bafflement and suspicion, more to do with what we were trying to do than for who we were, I suspect. But once ‘No Disco’ settled, and once the first positive notices started to filter through, a real gang mentality grew up around the series and everyone felt far more secure in the boat. For those who sailed in her, it was a scenic and exotic passage in steerage class, even if it often felt like we were travelling without a compass.

We recorded Dónal’s pieces to camera on the top floor of the RTÉ Cork building every Monday night, working around the demands of the newsroom. Our location was a cold, breeze-blocked space that we’d often supplement with whatever odd props we could pinch from the children’s TV stash down-stairs. I spent ages one afternoon cutting the letters that comprised the words ‘No Disco’ from a load of old Styrofoam wrapping that had come with some piece of technical kit installed in another part of the building. We got ferocious mileage from those self- standing pieces but my hands were welted for weeks afterwards.

But the more established we became, the more confident we grew and we soon reached a point where we didn’t have to explain or introduce ourselves to bands, handlers or publicists, which was another huge leap forwards. Paul Weller, then in the early stages of an unexpected career revival after years in the sidings, requested a date with us and I remember heading out nervously one Sunday evening to interview him after he’d finished a sound-check in The City Hall. He could be a spiky character at the best of times but I was assured that he liked the cut of the programme and had watched a couple of episodes: so much so that he sang like a canary and was happy to keep going way beyond the allotted half-hour. It was his father, who was also his manager, who arrived into the posh seats and wrapped us up so they could actually open the main doors and start getting folk into the hall.

 

 

By the start of the second series, the programme scored a rare audience with Lou Reed in Paris, which we gratefully accepted and during which Dónal and his interviewee developed a serious rapport, touching on art, design and photography as they ate, in real detail, into various aspects of Reed’s career. It is highly unlikely that, on that entire promotional campaign in support of ‘Set The Twilight Reeling’, Reed encountered anything as far- ranging and informed as the hour he spent with our boy. But by then we’d already done the likes of Suede, St. Etienne, David Gray, Pavement, Kristin Hersh and, most memorably, David Gedge from The Wedding Present, who took the short walk across from Sir Henry’s to talk to us in Father Mathew Street. And we’d picked up a few pointers – and no few brownie points – along the way.

As well as knocking off interviews with anyone of note – and many of no note whatsoever – who came our way, we also began to dabble with live, stripped back ‘sessions’, initially with a number of largely Dublin- based acts who’d travel to Cork for the day and endure us as we’d shoot multiple takes for editing later. Edwyn Collins did a gorgeous two- song set for us upstairs in The Old Oak one afternoon, performing ‘Low Expectations’ and ‘Gorgeous George’ from his comeback Setanta album, while we also recorded in The Triskel with Martin Stephenson, The Firkin Crane with The Divine Comedy and The CAT Club with The Revenants. Dónal had already introduced me to the Kerry singer-songwriter, John Hegarty, and we did a terrific session with him, also in The Triskel, that yielded a golden version of ‘Bonfire Night’, a beautiful song we both adored and which sat perfectly with our own personal sensibilities. I’ve covered this aspect of the series in a previous post about The Divine Comedy, available here.

 

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We wrapped up ‘No Disco’’s first season with a live benefit concert, in support of the Cork Aids Alliance, up in Nancy Spain’s on Barrack Street on May 17th, 1994. A local PR company run by Jean Kearney and Maura O’Keeffe had come to me with the suggestion, adamant that the ‘No Disco’ name was enough to carry a show like this, and wanted to guage our interest. I never once thought that we’d ram Nancy’s on a Sunday night with a bill that comprised, basically, of our friends – Engine Alley, Blink, Sack, LMNO Pelican and Treehouse – all of whom put themselves out on our behalf and never requested a single bean. Jim Carroll spun discs long into the night, Dónal did a short set, said a few words from the stage and was basically molested when he wandered through the venue. It was into the small hours when we cleared the hall, pulled down the P.A. and got the visiting bands back safely on the road and, as I made the short journey down-hill, home to my flat on Sullivan’s Quay, I wondered if ‘No Disco’ would be returning for a second series ?

I needn’t have worried. Not only had ‘No Disco’ found and developed an audience, the reviews and the general critical reaction gave us a bit more leeway in our discussions with RTÉ. We’d gotten onto air, stayed there and, by so doing, won friends in unlikely places. So by the time I checked out of the series for good, ‘No Disco’ was on it’s way. But it was Rory Cobbe and Dónal who developed the breath and the scope of the series beyond all recognition, putting flesh on what was still a very crudely formed skeleton. The programme became far broader in tone and in content, and I suspect that Rory enabled Dónal in ways which I never could have done and, by the third series, ‘No Disco’ had really found it’s meter.

I’ve seen Dónal a handful of times in the twenty years since we soldiered so intensely and intently together in Cork. We last spoke when I talked him into doing the voice-over on Ross Whitaker’s beautiful documentary film, ‘When Ali Came To Ireland’, and I was thrilled skinny when he agreed to be involved. Moreso again when I saw the final cut and heard that voice back on screen one more time. I’m not sure when we’ll meet again – given our recent record it’s unlikely to be any time soon – but, when eventually we do, we’ll talk about Gaelic football, enquire after our respective families and recall an old in-joke about Paul Weller headbands.

And then one of us will mention ‘Asleep In The Back’ by Elbow or ‘The Idiots’ by Republic of Loose or ‘Your Ghost’ by Kristin Hersh and we’ll lose ourselves for a moment because, as much as some things change, other things never change at all.

 

TRASHCAN SINATRAS: SONGS FOR SWINGING LOVERS

 

Trashcan Sinatras have long been one of my favourite bands and I’ve spent years giving them the shift of death in print, on television and on radio. We got behind them royally during my time on No Disco, where tracks like ‘Hayfever’, ‘I’ve Seen Everything’ and especially ‘The Genius I Was’ appeared as regularly as Donal Dineen himself. And to no real effect :- a noble handful at the back remained attentive while everyone else demanded more Mudhoney.

 

The band has played live in Ireland infrequently, usually to small but adoring audiences, and I’ve seen them in a variety of different Dublin venues, most notably [and least memorably] in a hell-hole in Temple Bar called The Hub, in 2003.

 

Muse was one of Ireland’s first on-line culture and arts ventures, edited and curated by Jim Carroll and, for a while, I contributed a regular column that, in hindsight, reads very, very angrily. Approaching the end of the millennium, I’d cultivated new interests and had returned to several others and, to all intents, had no stomach for writing solely about music. Jim, to his credit, gave me an absolutely free reign and we’ll re-post some of those other pieces – which are very personal – over time.

 

But while Trashcan Sinatras prepare for the launch of a sixth studio album, we thought it was maybe timely to return to this piece, which first appeared in Muse in February, 1999. The band had been dropped by Go Discs Records some years previously and had been forced to sell it’s Shabby Road Studio in Kilmarnock as a result. Their live date in Dublin’s Mean Fiddler on March 5th, 1999 – with which this piece coincided – was one of only a handful of shows the band played that year.

 

With the music industry turned inwards on itself, and technology developing out of all recognition, I saw hope in the distance for Trashcan Sinatras [who, at that point were still referenced also as The Trashcan Sinatras]. And I still do.

Originally published in Muse, February 1999

 

 

 

 

Ten years later and The Trashcan Sinatras are still crawling at their own pace. Nine years since their first record and, through the gin and the rain and almost in spite of the whole world, they’re shaking through. Three perfect elpees into a career that, on your ledger, reads bleak and blank. But only if you’re talking numbers.

 

Like a host of angels before them and no doubt long after them too, they inspire within their own fun-sized legion of support an absolute and blanket devotion.  A bit like The Fall I guess, only with better songs and with more audible words.  Which is only as popular music at its most enticing and anointing should be, nonetheless. My own rented townhouse is, by way of an example, adorned with more of their badly hung promo-matter than anything else.  Up there, pride of place between Keane and McGrath and for no other reason than that mine is a house that’s proud to have known them.  Prouder still to have shaken itself silly to their songs.

 

The Trashcan Sinatras are currently without a record label, without a bob and without a hope.  At least on paper.  In the last while, they’ve also undergone serious re-constructive surgery, something which may or may not be connected to all or some of the above.  For those of you who know them merely from their erratic pop videos, seen sometimes on quality music television, or from all of those very similar early evening radio shows, the band is gasping and ailing and yet somehow still alive. Surviving on scraps and on someone else’s good-will, still around kicking on doors and stealing your booze.  What’s really great to report, though, is that they’re still resolute, still clever, still articulate, still funny and still write tunes that, for the most part, stick like good glue.  Even if, given the appalling state of the domestic music industry’s health, this is an irrelevance.

 

Popular music is currently bracing itself.  It is an industry increasingly more conscious of its own need to survive, sensing all manner of paranoia the more multi-media infiltrates every new housing estate.  And as more and more music is forced onto an ever more selective and declining market, song quality has become increasingly more obsolete, stuck well down the pecking order behind marketing budgets and legal fees. It’s not so much the quality of the single, basically, as the size of the in-store poster display.  Or the scale of the strike-forcing on your first three singles.

 

 

God, how Noel Gallagher must be ticked pink right now.  Four years ago, Oasis were the vehicle onto which the industry tied its best horses, doing what it had always done best and seizing the moment.  Not defining it, merely exploiting an unexpected good fortune.  Opportunity meets culture statement with the blessing of the beautiful people and we’re off.  Sadly bands like  Pulp and Blur [who, at the time, rode the slipstream most prominently and who also, last time around, made their best records in ages even if none of you bought them], can never hope to repeat their previous market penetrations or re-visit their former chart positions. It is, for both of them after a fashion, a downward slide from here.  The industry drove them onwards to the point of overload while it could and, after radio re-coiled and marketing paranoia set in,  it drove them back to when it doesn’t require them. Even if the songs were far better.

 

What the industry is facing and what it is already in some cases coming to terms with, is an increased sense of  polarity.  The space and the distance between the haves and the have-nots has rarely been as pronounced – not since the middle of the last decade, if the truth were told.  So for all of E.M.I.’s very public investment in, say, The Divine Comedy, Neil Hannon’s immediate future is not in the hands of the man who signed him but rather in the hands of his marketing and product managers.  Because even if he does deliver E.M.I. the finest record of his generation [and it’s not that they’d notice, either way], he is dependent ultimately on the size and the force of the marketing budget behind it.  Hate to break it to the Mercury Rev fans and all but that’s pop.

 

Popular music has always been driven onwards by recurring fads and fashion and, with every passing fifteen years, familiar themes become re-apparant.  The British popular music industry has become so top-heavy over the last five years with a slew of ‘almost-theres’ – like The Supernaturals, Travis, Cast and, even though it kills me, The Trashcan Sinatras – that it cannot now sustain its own weight.  So what has emerged over the last six months, and what will become increasingly more obvious the closer we get to the millennium and beyond, is a move away from the politics of accounting.  A return to fanzine politics. To branding and loyalism. To C86‘s no-fi, no-nonsense sense of purpose.  To when quality songs and word-of-mouth propaganda were more than enough to overcome poor recording standards, second-hand sleeves and botched production.  It is necessity breathing invention by another name.

 

Now I don’t really wish to sound like another flatulent old anorak, but the more I see and the more records I hear, then the less I’m surprised by popular music.  So The Trashcan Sinatras are currently in Japan where they’re working up another mini-storm to probably, an audience of about twelve. How they possibly keep on keeping on, and why, astonishes me, given that the marketeers and the speculators under-wrote them ages since.  But there’s far more to life than cash books and balances,more than one way too, to skin your grandmother’s cat.  So what price their second coming at the year’s end, wrapped and bound with Belle And Sebastian and Snowpony on a gift-pack cassette labelled with love and with the inscription C-00?

Stranger things have happened.  Ask Robbie Williams.

 

FIVE GUYS NAMED MOE: FROM CANADA, WITH LOVE.

Like the small handful of others around these parts, it was during their U.K. and Ireland tour supporting Martin Stephenson and The Daintees in 1990 that I encountered Five Guys Named Moe for the first and only time. Between one thing and another, they went to ground pretty much immediately thereafter and, even now, not a whole lot is known about them, bar a skeleton outline. Although the group’s only album – also called ‘Five Guys Named Moe’ – is now available – almost – in it’s entirity on YouTube, the band behind it has been long-lost and is rarely, if ever, either cited or referenced. Given Canada’s reputation as an infrequent source of quality new music, the gaps in this particular story are all the more baffling. The record itself is virtually impossible to find and, try as I have done, I’ve been unable to locate the actual RCA issue via the usual sources. Google them and you’ll be invariably directed to the long-running musical of the same name and/or to a series of cabaret acts peddling scaled back versions of the same thing ;- so be careful out there.

moe album cover

Five guys Named Moe via http://saltyka.blogspot.ie

‘Five Guys Named Moe’ was recorded in Ringsend Road Studios in the heart of Dublin during the Autumn of 1989, produced by Donal Lunny of Planxty and Moving Hearts. But it’s not as if the band is readily recalled by locals either. True to form, Lunny also contributed bouzouki and bodhrán and also enlisted the help of some of his regular wingmen :- Ronan Browne plays uileann pipes on one track, James Kelly brought his banjo and Noel Eccles is credited as a hired-in percussionist.

album cover back

Five guys named Moe back cover via http://saltyka.blogspot.ie

Not that any of this should either deter or mis-lead you. Five Guys Named Moe peddled a terrific line in smart, sinewy pop music, in the margins with the likes of Divinyls, ‘Til Tuesday, Sixpence None Then Richer, The Pursuit Of Happiness and The Lotus Eaters, and with the lyrical whimsy of The Divine Comedy. Twenty-five years later, this seemingly phantom record still holds it’s own.

In keeping with the band’s general anonymity, they never feature either in the annals of live music in Cork, and why would they ? Only a handful of hardy regulars witnessed them open for The Daintees and the band then promptly disappeared into the mist. In terms of sound, tone, look and feel, they are the absolute counter-point to Nirvana. And, for that very reason, they embody every core difference between Sir Henry’s and De Lacy House.

I’ve long thought that De Lacy House never really received the credit it deserved as an excellent live music venue, especially between 1988 and 1994. Against the long-established might of Sir Henry’s, it was at a reputational disadvantage from the off, but promoters like Jim Walsh, the late Des Blair and the other Denis Desmond worked Don Forde’s top floor hard, and with no little sense of adventure. Far from rivalling Sir Henry’s, De Lacy’s complimented it instead, often presenting a far more diverse range of output, reaching across a broad spectrum, from folk and trad to out-and-out indie. And this may indeed have been a weakness as much as it was a strength ;- one could, quite literally, see anything there.

Personally, I loved the place.

It was there, towards the Grand Parade end of Oliver Plunkett Street, that I saw The Fatima Mansions, Roddy Frame, Power Of Dreams, A House, The Wannadies and numerous others test the support beams beneath the third-storey’s wooden floor. And where I also saw a host of roots acts too, most memorably the excellent Don Baker, a regular there in his pomp. It was where I saw The Fat Lady Sings play to twenty people one Sunday night [most of whom ended up on the stage for the encore] and where I once encountered an uncle of mine at the bar during a set by Thee Amazing Colossal Men :- he thought he’d come to see The Wolfe Tones. It was that kind of venue.

And it was in De Lacy House where I’d routinely get the nod on the main door from Tony Hennessy who, when he wasn’t kicking imaginary footballs down Barrack Street or refereeing youth football games [‘careful now lads, 2-0 is the most dangerous lead in soccer’], was easily Cork’s best groomed and most efficient doorman. The stairs may well have been a nightmare for roadies and humpers but the venue itself hosted many a memorable night for punters, and Tony was a fixture for all of the really great shows.

And none more so than on that midweek night in 1990 when Five Guys Named Moe opened for Martin Stephenson to a coven of well-meaning locals. They’d certainly been billed on some of the advance publicity and a couple of standard stills were certainly in circulation, one of which may even have been carried by The Evening Echo. On the night itself they played for no more than forty minutes, performing ten songs at a push, all of them I imagine from their debut album. Myself and my regular companion, Philip Kennedy, were immediately taken with their smart and sassy pop-songs and cutesy stage-banter and, as quickly as we could thereafter, both sought out the record. And, although I’ve given away more copies of it over the years than even ‘A Happy Pocket’ by The Trash Can Sinatras, I still retain one crudely down-loaded version that I absolutely treasure.

Meg Lunney

Meg Lunney via http://www.last.fm

The band was comprised of co-lead vocalists Meg Lunney and Jonathan Evans [who also wrote most of the songs], backed-up on bass and drums by Tom McKay and Graeme Murray respectively. Founded in Ontario, Canada, the group re-located to London and then onto Glasgow, from where they settled their line-up, attracted local management and signed to a major ;- in many ways, they are redolent of the intelligent Scottish pop sound of this time. And, in the great traditions of popular music, ‘Five Guys Named Moe’ was released in 1990 to the sound of silence and was dead on arrival.

Apart from a video for the first single, ‘She’s On A Mountain’, and obviously some form of tour support on that Daintees tour, the band was never really a priority-push for it’s label thereafter, a story all too familiar to a slew of Irish bands during the same period. All that exists on-line by way of a history is unofficial fan blogs that clips together a series of short personal testimonies from some of the band and that’s located at Saltyka and Gamekult

The record itself is eleven songs long and, while bearing testament to the classy writing ability – and no little ambition – of Evans, is also a tribute to Lunny’s uncanny knack for delivering real diamonds, whatever the context. While his track record as an innovative player and band leader has been extensively documented, he’s also taken a producer’s credit on a wide range of studio output, from Kate Bush and Elvis Costello to Rod Stewart and The Indigo Girls and a myriad of different points on all sides. The fact that his own on-line biography references Five Guys Named Moe in this company is revealing in itself and, in a mildly pathetic way, affords me some sort of cheer.

band small

Five guys named Moe via http://saltyka.blogspot.ie

Five Guys Named Moe, by their own admission, had been listening to the sweet harmonies of The Beatles and The Beach Boys and, very clearly, to the shared boy-girl vocal approach used so tellingly by Prefab Sprout on ‘Steve McQueen’. While their own record doesn’t [thankfully] attempt to so crudely replicate, those influences are certainly obvious ;- this is no bad thing and one can hardly fault Five Guys Named Moe for the scale of what they were attempting to do.

They may not have been the biggest or brashest band to ever play De Lacy House but, to two friends who stumbled on them by accident – or was it fate ? – they were certainly one of the most impactful. Even now, all of those years on, the record comes highly recommended.