The Dixons

A HOUSE: LOCAL HOUSING AUTHORITY

There were a few of them, back in the dark ages, that you’d think twice about looking crooked at. Declan Jones from Blue In Heaven, all seven foot odd of him in his leather keks and his Chelsea boots, was one. Half of Whipping Boy, a couple of The Gorehounds, Dave Lavelle from The Honey Thieves. And maybe the gruffest of all of them, Dave Couse of A House, who’d skewer you with a look or a one-liner if you tried to blackguard him. Or even if you didn’t.

The first time I met Couse in person was on the concourse at Kent Station in Cork as he’d stepped off of an incoming train from Dublin. ‘So’, he asks. ‘What have you done for A House today ?’. He was never one who hung around to get his eye in.

And in truth, I’d done little for A House that day and I’d done little most other days too for the band that Couse formed with Fergal Bunbury, Martin Healy and Dermot Wylie in West Dublin in the early 1980s. But  then they never struck me as either needing support or actively seeking assistance ;- from a remove, they looked like one of the most self-sufficient, durable and intense bands in the country and, to that end, were probably best left alone. And anyway, there were others, mostly on my own door-step in Cork, who were far more deserving of my first aid or, as history might record it, the hemlock kiss.

Maybe, alighted from a train ride from Dublin to Cork, Couse was just hungry and cranky ;- as one of those who regularly experienced the inter-city dining options during the 1980s and 1990s, its easy to appreciate how that may have been the case. Eitherway, once I’d fed and watered him, and after we’d completed a spiky exchange for an RTÉ youth television strand called ‘Scratch Saturday’, he certainly softened up a bit and I saw a hint of light beyond the blanket.

Over several subsequent years, I had a decent sideline view of A House while I worked with Keith Cullen at Setanta Records and, for a time, was close enough to see the meat on the bone. I never knew them particularly well  – nor they I – to go anywhere deeper than a clean cut on the finger but I was still privy enough to see just how driven and determined they were on so many levels. They rarely let up or let go and Couse was at the heart of it all, setting the tempo, consistency in a world slowly gazing at its shoes.

In his pomp he was a restless and forceful writer who saw merit in the malevolent vignette. Fronting a group whose considerable achievement  was often taken for granted and who were never entirely a common currency, one aspect often fuelled the other. A House, like many others before them and after them, were at their best when Couse was at his most tart. They consistently demanded the final word and, with Couse on the mic, it was often a bitter one ;- when the good times came, they were forever fleeting.

A House issued five studio albums for three different labels, most of which are among the finest Irish releases of their generation and, all things considered, the band endured for far longer than many of its peers. But their recorded output apart, it was the line they walked – and often deliberately played with – between charm, arrogance, resilience and bloody-mindedness that tended to define them.

In as much as the parameters of their original, four-square guitar-fused  line-up would allow, A House were as unique as any and better than most. And later, after they re-shuffled their pack in the aftermath of their second album – after which they were promptly dropped by their label – bolstering their line-up and adding finesse and steel in equal part, they refined their game and went for it again, baldly. But in both their iterations they were as difficult to pin down as their cover was difficult to penetrate ;- in an Irish context, the biggest issue many seemed to have with A House was that they weren’t Something Happens, with whom they were long associated and with whom they were consistently locked in a competitive, often truculent side-show.

Tony O’Donoghue, now RTÉ’s football correspondent, once pounded the  footpaths around Cork city to the point of fracture. In the days before mobile phones, you could always locate him if you wandered Patrick Street long enough and, in his leather jacket and pointy suedes, he certainly looked the part of a hip, young gunslinger. In the best and worst traditions of the freelancing hack, he held down a slew of wide-ranging jobs, one of the most interesting of which was a short, weekly slot on Cork Local Radio, where he’d play snippets of a couple of new releases, draw our attention to upcoming concerts and live events around town and jolt the RTÉ sound recordists from their torpor, however briefly.

As a clueless fresher still navigating his way around most things, I’d often still be at home during lunchtimes and would regularly catch Tony’s finely-tuned political broadcasts on behalf of quality independent Irish music. During a period in which emerging, indigenous rock music was in rude good health, and when the standard of its recorded output was mirrored by the development of a regular, sustainable national live circuit, Tony was rarely short of decent material. Broadcasting in short form long before the term was hi-jacked by digital marketing consultants and social media influencers, and while the regions were often starved of relevant music media, his weekly sermons cherried the cake for many of us, putting a partisan frosting on the national proselytising of the likes of Dave Fanning’s Rock Show on Radio 2FM.

And it was during one of Tony’s local homilies in 1987 that I heard the first shimmer of ‘Snowball Down’, A House’s second single and, for me, one of the most pressing, urgent cuts in the history of Irish alternative music. Produced by Chris O’Brien and released on the band’s own, self-funded imprint, RIP Records, it clocked in at just over 150 seconds, with its shades of The Bunnymen, The Blue Aeroplanes and some of the more subtle aspects – prominent, nimble bass, prominent acoustic strum – of the paisley underground. As opening statements go, both ‘Snowball Down’ and the band’s debut issue that preceded it months earlier, ‘Kick Me Again, Jesus’, punched far beyond the national qualifying standard.

To a handful of local anoraks, hangers-on and indie spotters, though, this was just another rung on a curve steeping progressively upwards.

The Underground Bar on Dublin’s Dame Street was a much-loved dive and, for a number of years, a small and important cog in the local machine, very strictly off-Broadway. [The site on which it stood is now occupied by a racy shop called ‘Condom Power’, an irony not lost on former regulars who fondly remember the old bar’s sardonic drayman, Big Johnny]. Run by Jeff Brennan and his father, Noel, the downstairs parlour was where, to my mind, the first and last great domestic music movement really took root hosting, as it did, frenetic and often chaotic early shows by the likes of Rex And Dino, Something Happens, The Stars of Heaven, Power Of Dreams, The Slowest Clock, [Backwards] Into Paradise, Whipping Boy, The Dixons and A House themselves.

The careless spirit of that period and the claustrophobic aspect of the tiny venue is captured naked on a short, six-song album, ‘Live At The  Underground’, that was recorded there over two nights in 1985 and issued by Jeff on his own, one-off label, ‘Fear And Loathing Records’. Four years earlier, Elvera Butler’s ‘Kaught At The Kampus’ also cuffed six live tracks onto tape during shows recorded at the famed, UCC-hosted shows at The Arcadia Ballroom in Cork and, even if neither album was ever intended to trouble the chart compilers, both records served real purpose nonetheless. Over thirty years later, what were clearly just calling cards for two highly-regarded live venues have become, absolutely by default, curios that capture some of the more unique sights, sounds and perhaps even smells of the time, for posterity.

a house setlist

Setlist Limelight Belfast, 1993 / 1994.  © Gary White

And A House are there on ‘Live At The Underground’, callow but recognisable, alongside The Stars Of Heaven, Something Happens and Hughie Purcell – contributing the shambling ‘On Your Bike, Wench, And Let’s Have The Back Of You’ to the party, before quickly moving on.

Indeed the band’s re-birth on the Setanta label between 1990 and 1992, during which they recorded and released the bridging [and aptly-titled, in my view] ‘Doodle’ EP and then the magnificent ‘I Am The Greatest’, is worth a long read in its own right. For a band down on it’s luck and back on the labour, the title of that record reflects A House’s constant, inerrant belief in it’s own ability. But then all five of their album titles can be read as sarcastic, sly references to the way the band saw itself, and especially it’s evolving relationship – good, mixed and mostly bad – with the music industry. From the shadowy optimism of the debut on a major label, ‘On Our Big Fat Merry Go-Round’ to the damning reality of a slow degeneration on it’s stubborn follow-up, ‘I Want Too Much’ through the life-affirming ‘I Am The Greatest’, the return to a major ‘Wide Eyed And Ignorant’ and the closing, sardonic chapter, ‘No More Apologies’, these were clear, political punch-lines that mashed a snotty face on the bay window of the industry that begot them. ‘The music business ?’, A House might have mused, summoning another doleful street philosopher, Norm Peterson . ‘Can’t live with it. Pass the beer-nuts’.

The band played it’s last ever show on February 28th, 1997, in Dublin’s  Olympia Theatre, a stone’s throw from The Underground Bar, aloof and diffident to the end. But although A House boasted a noisy and loyal support base all around the country, I long suspected they were far more comfortable outside of Ireland where, arguably, they were more critically valued and where they consistently had one up on Something Happens. But they were also clued in enough to know when to call time and, when the curtain fell, it was on the band’s own terms :- they scripted their own funeral in detail and organised the buffet afterwards.

In 2002, five years after A House packed up their tent, ‘Here Come The Good Times’, by a distance the band’s most contagious pop song, was selected as Ireland’s official World Cup anthem as the country’s international football team headed off to compete in that summer’s competition in Japan and Korea. Its beefed-up glam rock production and shiny pop veneer notwithstanding, the song is actually about a lifetime of personal disappointment [where good times occur ‘for a change’]  and, in hindsight, seemed like a perfectly prescient selection, given how Ireland’s World Cup campaign unfolded.

Remembered less for the team’s unfortunate and maybe unlucky exit from the tournament and far more for Roy Keane’s strop, after which he tore out of the team’s training camp on the island of Saipan and returned home, it was appropriate that the ghosts of A House were on hand to faithfully soundtrack the misfortunes of a nation.

Eight years and two World Cups previously, Parlophone Records, their second major label, had failed to crack ‘Here Come The Good Times’ into the mainstream. This achievement was at once so scarcely unbelievable and yet perfectly in keeping with the band’s long experiences in the middle ground ;- the writing was on the wall for that relationship and, one suspects, A House itself, thereafter.

A salvo from that stomping pop song had also featured briefly as part of a spectacular opening montage shot around Ireland for the opening of the 1995 Eurovision Song Contest, hosted by Mary Kennedy and broadcast live from The Point Depot in Dublin. And however fleetingly, it seemed as if A House had finally recovered some of the face they’d lost when Gay Byrne patronised them to within inches of their lives as he introduced them on The Late Late Show before they performed their excellent ‘I’ll Always Be Grateful’ single back on the floor of Studio One on October 14th, 1988.

The last time I saw Dave Couse was from a distance after a Frank And Walters show in Dublin city many years ago. I hear him, from time to time, on his infrequent radio show where, from his song selections alone, I suspect he still holds many of those same beliefs he did when, a quarter of a century ago, we first locked horns in Cork. His band remain one of the real enigmas – and genuine successes – of contemporary Irish rock music and while, in the twenty years since that last curtain call, you’d expect all parties to have moved on, you’d suspect that no one felt the band’s lack of a broader breakthrough more keenly than Couse himself.

And whenever I hear him on the radio now – and he’s still as captivatingas he’s ever been – it just hardens my view that all disc jockeys, like television producers and music writers – are, at heart, just frustrated musicians who, because of events and an absence of good fortune, are doing the next best and closest things instead.

And then there’s the standing Couse enjoys in the recent history of Cork popular music. In the long traditions of keeping the best secrets on the inside, he produced the first Frank And Walters E.P. for the Setanta label and, in hindsight, should have gone on and finished the job by doing the band’s debut album as well. By the time he was back behind the bench with them, far too late, on their second – and still easily their best album, ‘Grand Parade’, the moment, you’d think, was lost, the spirit having flown. But Couse’s whipsmart production only highlights how under-cooked ‘Trains, Boats And Planes’, The Franks’ nervous-sounding debut, was ;- in no way does the sound of that record do justice to many of it’s terrific cuts. ‘Trains’ has aged poorly and, twenty-five years on, sounds emaciated and tinny :- given the steroids Couse also infused into The Franks’ ‘Beauty Becomes More Than Life’ elpee in 2006, it’s difficult not to think now of what he could have done, years previously, with the debut.  And where that might have taken both parties.

Years later, several worlds collided and I was among the team tasked with producing RTÉ’s Late Late Show, immediately after Gay Byrne had stepped down as host and Pat Kenny moved up onto the crease. I felt it was only right, for several reasons, to move away from the show’s long-standing signature tune, an instrumental passage taken from Chris Andrews’ 1965 hit, ‘To Whom It Concerns’ and so I invited Dave, and a handful of others, to pitch any alternative suggestions they may have had. In my own mind, rightly or wrongly, I felt it was an opportunity to commission a contemporary Irish writer and to maybe sub-contract the work out to someone who may have had a fresh perspective on such matters. Which is what we did :- and it was Ray Harman of Something Happens who eventually composed a new theme for the programme. In the years since he’s carved out a terrific career for himself providing similar services to the feature film and documentary markets.

Dave Couse has stayed nicely busy too and, his radio work apart, has released a handful of records on several labels and under a variety of different band-names, in the years since. Among which the  ‘Batman And Robin’ single, released in September, 2005 under the band name Couse And The Impossible, is still easily the best of his solo material, some of which, his debut solo album ‘Genes’, in particular, is far more introspective and difficult than one might have expected.

For the last ten years or so I’ve spent far too much time in the shopping centre in Nutgrove, close to where I now life on the southside of Dublin. Where once I used it to do a regular family grocery shop and maybe pick  up an over-priced, over-caloried coffee on the hoof, its now one of my primary social outlets, somewhere to kill an hour during the insanity or whenever I want to lose my children. There’s a Credit Union office on the complex, an excellent off-licence and a couple of decent take-aways ;- a trip to Nutgrove is everything that a casual wander into the heart of Soho used to be.

The music piped into the centre and out over the tannoys must be among the most interesting and diverse anywhere in the country. Buried in among the sterile old standards you’ll hear, on a routine basis, selections from The Icicle Works, early New Order, The Lotus Eaters and The Fountains Of Wayne. And on a couple of occasions recently, I’ve heard ‘I’ll Always Be Grateful’, still one of A House’s most distinctive cuts, as I’ve dallied in the aisles among the detergents and the toilet rolls.

But while I know that Dave Couse lives on that side of the city, I don’t remember him being invited down to cut the ribbon when they opened the re-furbished Argos branch there a few years back.

THE SWINGING SWINE / THE GLEE CLUB

 

Guest post by Hugh O’Carroll… 

In late 1980s Dublin, having played a bit part in The Babysnakes’ story and a bigger part in The Stormcrows’ story, I was called on by Mr. Eamonn Dowd to guest with, and then join, The Swinging Swine. They had formed in Galway and had already gone through some line-up changes but the core of the band was Eamonn on guitar, vocals and some fiddle, Joanne Loughman on vocals, Doug Steen on lead guitar and John Lalor on bass. They were using the drummer from The Stars of Heaven at the time but that was a fluid situation!

The guest appearance was on a show called ‘Borderline’ on RTÉ and it all went well, though a cameraman pulled out my jack plug, but the vibes were good and I joined for full-time fiddling.

 

Swinging Swine

The Swinging Swine. Picture courtesy of Hugh O’Carroll

 

The Swine had been playing in and around Galway for a couple of years in the same circles as The Stunning and the infant Sawdoctors and all three were garnering interest. We added Billy Geraghty to the line-up as our most permanent drummer. In Dublin we started a residency in a nightspot called The Speakeasy and this became legendary. The band thrived and started creating some really energetic folk, country, and rock music to the delight of an ever-colourful audience. Besides the highly engaging activities of the Swine onstage, there was always the possibility of a guest appearance by a Waterboy or a Hothouse Flower or other luminaries of the day.
We gigged around Ireland to pretty good audiences as well and started recording a lot with help from Larry O’Toole, Donal Lunny, James Delaney, Paul Thomas and other Dublin-based legends.

Eventually we released an EP with the lead track being ‘Them Ghosts Do Come’, which sneaked into the Irish charts for quite a few weeks and thus we got quite a bit of radio play.


RTÉ were good to us and we were constantly on TV, on shows like Nighthawks, Check It Out, Púiríní and other shows of the day along with other bands of the day, like Interference, The Dixons, The Stunning, The Golden Horde and the like, who were all good buddies of ours.


We switched our main Dublin residency to Walters in Dun Laoghaire and, if anything, this became even more exciting than The Speakeasy. We also played other big gigs, including a few Trinity Balls and a couple of Olympia gigs etc, aided by an array of management characters including Horslips legend, journalist Eamonn Carr and Robbie Foy.

We were on the verge of various different record deals and bigger gigs and tours when the years of constant gigging and partying and general rowing over wee things started to take its toll.

We’d been like a family for a few years but concentrated familiarity can breed a little friction and even though there’d been no lack of encouragement from our supporters, the band fell apart. The whole folk rock frenzy of the Swine was highly enjoyable though and certainly had some serious highs!

From the time I first joined The Swinging Swine I’d always got on really well, musically and personally, with Joanne. I gelled musically with all the Swine but particularly with Joanne. When the group broke up I joined Niall Toner’s Hank Halfhead, which was a country-rock band which had at times been home to many a famous individual! While gigging away with the boys I was writing and recording with Joanne. We were heading down a more left of field indie alley.

Kevin Boyle, a mate of mine from Hank Halfhead, was a wiz with a fancy four track and a nifty guitar and bass player. We recorded demos with Joanne on vocals, myself on guitar and fiddle and Kevin on guitar, bass and programming.

We tried some other mates in the band but the three gelled recording wise and we decided to do some recording with our old mate, Larry O’Toole, in Temple Lane studios.


We decided to call the band The Glee Club, which was a suggestion from a friend of ours inspired by the Cork band, Five Go Down To The Sea.

We mixed up the recordings and made a wee demo and sent out about 3 or 4 and got a quick response from Keith Cullen from Setanta Records, home to The Frank And Walters and The Divine Comedy, to name but two. Keith signed us up pretty quick and in a flash we were going to London for a spell.

It was agreed that we’d record a mini LP with Angelo Bruschini from The Blue Aeroplanes producing.

We went to Bristol to start and got some backing tracks together before heading down to Dave Stewart’s Church studio to do the tracking. It all came together pretty quick and the album was released in 1993 to reasonable critical acclaim. We gigged as a 3 with backing tracks and played a little around London with Radiohead, Slowdive and The Gang of Four to name a few !

We also gigged a bit in France and were getting good feedback from Europe in general.
Melody Maker then gave us a great review and we got more positive feedback from press in Ireland, U.K. and Europe.

Around this time it was decided we should fully move to London.

Kevin had a new baby and this was not practical for him so we were down to a core of two members, but we were joined by Magnus Box on bass and an auld buddy of mine from Dublin, Justin Healy, on drums. This line up played another few gigs and around this time there was interest developing from Ivo from 4AD records, home to bands we loved like The Cocteau Twins, Pixies and Dead Can Dance etc.

Ivo had spotted Joanne previously and loved the voice and was interested in working with The Glee Club but thought the mini album was a bit ‘rock’.

We recorded a pared down version of Need, with Ivo and 4AD’s opinion in mind.
The recording took place in The Drugstore, which was The Jesus And Mary Chain’s studio, with engineer Dick Meaney and both Setanta and 4AD were impressed. Plus, we were loving it too!

It was decided that we’d record some tracks in Eden Studios with Hugh Jones of Echo And The Bunnymen fame, with Dick and others engineering. This resulted in 4 new tracks which we were all thrilled with.

The end result of this period was an agreement that we’d add re-recorded versions of songs from the mini-album to the new tracks recorded with Hugh and release a full length album on Setanta in Europe and on 4AD in the U.S..

We spent most of 1993 recording the rest of the album in The Drugstore with Dick Meaney in London, where we now were living full-time. Magnus was still playing bass and a friend of his, Adrian Meehan, was playing drums as they had on the tracks with Hugh Jones.

Everyone was happy with the album when finished and it was decided that we would go to the CMJ festival in New York to push the album, which was called ‘Mine’. Mazzy Star and Mercury Rev, amongst others, played at the festival. We played three sets there ;- one at Sin É, which at the time was a buzzing venue having been home to some golden gigs by Jeff Buckley.

All in all the trip to New York was a success. We were featured on the excellent No Disco show in Ireland and reviews in the home country were glowing!

It was decided that we should move to the U.S as the reaction to the album was good as 4AD had pushed it with the radio stations and the band was now a long-term feature in the College Radio charts.

Setanta had a friend, Gina Orr, who was interested in managing the band Stateside and it was agreed that myself and Joanne would move to San Francisco to make the most of the fact that the 4AD push was exposing a lot of people to the band and we continued to do well in the College Radio and Alternative charts in the U.S..

We moved to San Fran and played some shows, just the two of us in S.F. and Los Angeles, and also went to play at South By South West, where other 4AD acts were on the bill and other people we admired such as Beck.

We were going down grand as a 2 piece but to get more into the shows we enlisted a bass player and drummer, Chris and Dave, to play along with us. Our record deals weren’t lucrative enough to have moved the English boys to The States for a year.

Gina got us a tour supporting the band LOW and off we went from coast to coast for a month. That was a great experience. We went down well and enjoyed their music too!
We went home to Ireland to do Féile, -The Trip to Tipp.

On the bill were lots of bands we liked, like Cypress Hill, Rage against The Machine and Blur, to name but a few.

Things seemed to be going really well but both 4AD and Setanta were losing interest in what was a slow build and, even though we were going back to America for another long tour, we kind of knew that they both mightn’t release another album for us.

It had been a great run for The Glee Club but when that tour finished and I realised that we were losing the support of our backers, I would have found it hard to go back to London and record another album and try to build momentum again. So I rang Joanne and we decided to stop things for a while.

The proceeding couple of years had been intense. Constant touring, recording and schmoozing is both living the dream and not so much!! Either way we went our separate ways for a brief 20 years and then, having meandered around the world and around Ireland playing all kinds of gigs, I started releasing some original material again ,singing a bit and collaborating with various people.

I got to thinking that I might collaborate again with Joanne and rang her up and
we re-gelled well over a single, ‘Platitudes’.

We decided, while doing some promotional work for the single, that we might as well do an album together, and this is how the new album ‘HIVE’ has arrived!
It’s been a long and winding tale but I’ve enjoyed recording this album as much as the earlier stuff.

The album will be released in July, 2017 and The Glee Club are about to announce a couple of gigs in Dublin, where it all started!