The Hitchers

JONNY REP and BALLINCOLLIG

jonny-rep-turned-around

The suburb of Ballincollig, to the west of Cork city, is known to many because of John Spillane, the gentle Cork songwriter with a delicate hand who, on his 1996 album, ‘The Wells Of The World’, commemorated the village with two chords and a sting. ‘Johnny Don’t Go To Ballincollig’, he warned on that record’s very first line. ‘Where you always get disappointed’.

I’ve been making the ten-mile trip out from Cork city to Ballincollig, on and off, for the guts of forty years and I can’t say I’ve ever been really disappointed by it ;- not even during the frenzied New Year’s Eve I spent there fifteen years ago. But growing up in the middle of the city during the 1970s, Ballincollig may as well have been in Donegal ;- in the days long before ring roads and over-passes, it was simply out there somewhere, in the country. And yet that never stopped my mother from loyally making the journey once every season to visit her hairdresser – trading, with typical Cork notions as a ‘hair coiffeur’ – whose box-room premises were very definitely at odds with the outward ambition of the business and which were located towards the Ovens end of the main drag back.

And when we’d be outside in the car, impatient and restless, waiting for her perm to fully set, my father would turn to me and suggest that Ovens, a truly mad place down the road, was the most appropriate spot in Cork in which to locate a crematorium, if anyone were clued-in or daring enough.

The Cork-based promoter Denis Desmond –not to be confused with his more high-profile, hirsute and alpha namesake – launched a nationwide competition for school bands in 1989 and I regularly fetched up all over Munster to help out with the judging. It was a laudable and naïve under-taking, and certainly not something from which a coin was turned easily but, for me, it was a cost-effective way to catch the best and worst of what was going on inside some of Ireland’s most addled adolescent minds. And it was on this beat one Saturday afternoon that, in a musty old hall on The Crescent in Limerick city, that I first heard, and was quickly captivated by, the competition’s eventual winners :- The Hitchers. Their first single, ‘There’s A Bomb In That Basket Of Fruit’, was recorded as part of their prize for taking the spoils on a memorable final night in Connolly Hall in Cork in March, 1990.

During one of the competition’s earlier heats out in Ballincollig Community School the previous winter, the premises was put under siege by a group of tooled-up young toughs half-way through. After a couple of local goth bands struggled through their sets, the building was put into lockdown and the production crew was sped out of the village under Garda escort. I was back in The Long Valley on Winthrop Street in good time for last orders and had, for a change, a genuine story to impart to those in the upstairs bar. And in that story, the bands I toiled through earlier that evening were way less memorable than the cider-fuelled carry-on around the school grounds.

It was Denis Desmond who first turned me onto The Outside, a reluctant five-piece from Ballincollig with smart, poppy fingers and a keen touch who quickly became one of my favourite local bands during the late 1980s. The name captured them perfectly :- Francis Ford Copolla’s 1983 teen film, ‘The Outsiders’, betrayed their references while, in the same breath, summed up how they saw themselves, cut adrift in what was still a developing suburb away from the thrust and noise ten miles back along the road. I made a point of seeing The Outside whenever I could, most memorably in The Cork Opera House as part of a three-night showcase for new bands that Denis also ran, and where they were as good as they’d ever become. They picked up a couple of handy supports along the way too and I really thought they had genuine potential. They were a work in progress, of course, but their canny pop songs displayed a real grasp of the fundamentals and hinted at a frame of reference broad enough to keep them interesting and arresting. And I was sorry to see them pack it in so shortly afterwards ;- another band poisoned forever by the public shift of death I’d given them.

Some of their number fetched-up thereafter in a handful of other, more boisterous guitar bands – Semi, Fred -before eventually putting down roots as LMNO Pelican, who deviated from the family line and were a dirtier, slightly more skewed indie concern. The Pelicans became a prominent adjunct on the comet ridden by both The Frank And Walters and The Sultans Of Ping during the stellar period between 1990 and 1995 but may have been unfairly lost in the supervoid that briefly surrounded it. I’ve written previously about the band’s spiritual leader and pulse, it’s late drummer, Brendan Butler, and it was because of him– and his overwhelmingly positive view of life and music – that myself and Mick Finnegan, one of the many unheralded figures at the heart of Cork’s music scene from post-punk onwards – ended up together on the producer’s settee when LMNO Pelican entered Elm Tree Studios on Cork’s Mardyke in 1993 to record their second E.P.


They’d already made a considerable dent with their debut, the excellent four-tracker, ‘Boutros Boutros’, from which ‘Call Yossarian’ – in the spirit of the feistier Dublin guitar bands from a decade previously, The Slowest Clock in particular – was a particular stand-out and a signal of real intent.

For years afterwards I wondered if Mick and myself just made a proper hames of the follow-up and that, far from enhancing the band’s sound, had actually sucked the spirit from them ? But ‘Red Dot’ E.P. still means the world to me :- I certainly knew what we wanted to do on those four songs even if, to this day, I’m still not entirely sure where most of the bottom end went during the mixdown ? There are some terrific flicks, hooks and licks on that record, many of them provided by Fergus [Gus] Keane, the Pelican’s ace guitarist who, even then, was already an honours graduate of the Tom Verlaine/Graham Coxon school of icing. And I’ll still pull that record from the racks the odd time and get a rare thrill from ‘Wangley Dan’ and ‘Chalkey Gods’, recalling a terrific couple of weeks during which we panel-beat the record into shape and laid it down, plotting the harmony lines, adding cello parts and working up the shapes as we went.


The core of that band – Pats, Fergus and Derry – can be found these days scaffolding Jonny Rep, the best constituent parts of The Outside, Semi and The Pelicans compounded, basically, and then lacquered with an urgent, riffy finish. These days they’re joined in the vanguard by a pair of strays from two other prominent Cork outfits, Niall Lynch from The Shanks and Dave Senior from Rulers of The Planet and, dragging it all together from behind the mixing desk, Ciaran O’Shea who, with his brother, Declan, founded and led the ambitious [and very noisy] Cyclefly who, for a spell, briefly threatened a serious international breakthrough fifteen or so years back. From his Whitewell Studio, outside of Cloyne in East Cork, Ciaran certainly knows how to create a formidable wall of guitar sound [and where to locate the bottom end] and Jonny Rep’s records sound absolutely vast. For the sake of easy reference, they’re like an indie Traveling Wilburys trading Ride-style blows on every single line.

I hadn’t heard from them for years until, out of the blue, they posted up Jonny Rep’s excellent and frightfully under-rated debut album, which was released back in 2010. And the tidy hand-written note that accompanied it – not begging favours, just bearing best wishes – is typical of how they’ve always conducted themselves. I was delighted to hear from them and even more excited to hear that they were all still at it, decades later, and with the same sort of zest they had back when they were younger, leaner and dreamier. Maybe it’s just another aspect of the cycle of life manifesting itself but there’s something keenly reassuring about friends sticking the distance through the decades, refuelling at various points in the road, driving on, with music to keep them in good spirits and to occupy their conversations.


These days, they tell me, they might get together in the rehearsal room whenever the mood takes them, no pressure, and riff it out until they’ve made a forward stride or two. They may make another record down the line or they may not. They may play an odd live show, they may undertake a short tour, who knows ? But what’s clear is that the twin spectres of disappointment and failure that overhang all bands of a certain age have, in this case, long given way to perspective and priority. It’s a freedom that’s evident in the music :- Jonny Rep have never sounded stronger, more cohesive or better.

Today, the band formally releases it’s second album, ‘Cold Sunbeam’, even if none of us are entirely sure what a formal release actually means anymore beyond, one suggests, a line in a Google group calendar. Yes, there’ve been a couple of positive notices, a steady increase in airplay, the odd radio appearance and a couple of soft pieces in the local papers but beyond that, one suspects, it’s more about a quiet, singular satisfaction at just squaring something special away, boxed off. And, once again it’s a very physical, confident record that, over the course of it’s nine formidable tracks, flouts it’s influences like it
detonates it’s riffs ;- early, often and to real effect. Added marks to, of course, to any band that references one of Blackpool’s most historic industrial landmarks in it’s album title.

Maintaining a long link – especially strong in Cork circles – between the indie set and football, the band is named to within a missing letter ‘h’ after the mercurial Dutch winger [is there any other kind ?] who played in – and lost – two World Cup finals in 1974 and 1978. Johnny Rep is another in that far-reaching line of footballers who played as fast and loose off the pitch as he did on it even if he is still, to his credit, one of the few players to have admitted to taking amphetamines during a career that was also pock-marked by a battle with booze.

In a curious reversal of stereotype, I can’t imagine Jonny Rep breaking out the whizz in the rehearsal room anytime soon in order to gain a sly competitive edge on an unsuspecting opposition. And they’ve also come far enough and through enough to know that ‘Cold Sunbeam’ won’t get them gold-plated status at Mar-A-Lago. But there comes a point when gentle genius lies in the most obvious and simple things :- like respecting life in the slow lane. And Jonny Rep have that in spades.

‘Cold Sunbeam’ is released today, February 24th, 2017, on Jonny Rep’s own label, Wangley Dan Records, and comes highly recommended.

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LIMERICK :- A LARK IN THE PARK, 1991

 

I started contributing to The Irish Examiner, then The Cork Examiner, back in the late 1980s and I really hadn’t a clue. I wrote oodles of copy for my local paper over the years, much of it impenetrable and most of it salvaged by the excellent sub-editors I never met and know now by reputation only.

 

I reviewed many concerts and live events for The Examiner and filled an awful lot of space for them during times when news was slow. I’d often ring in late at night from off-site, usually before 11PM, and my stuff was received at the copy-desk by whoever was unfortunate enough to connect with me at base. From an unreliable pay-phone, often in the middle of town, I’d roar my four-hundred poorly-formed words back to headquarters, especially concerned that we’d spell band names and song titles correctly. ‘That’s ‘Casual Sex In The Cineplex’, I’d shout. ‘C for Cork, I for Ireland, N for Nigel’ while, outside on the street, someone was always waiting impatiently to use the phone box to anxiously call a parent or drug dealer or to just piss or gawk into it. ‘L for Leo, E for Eugene, X for X-Ray’.

 

There was plenty going on in Limerick during my time freelancing with The Examiner and, whenever an opportunity arose, I’d blag a lift or a bus down there to cover the ground. I thought Limerick was far less self-conscious and precious than what I was used to in Cork ;- all the more so, I guess, because I was only ever passing through. I remember Tony O’Donoghue telling me once about a Hot Press interview he’d done with Tuesday Blue, before which the singer insisted that they both assumed the Lotus Position and do a yoga session together. That sort of talk only teased me further :- I loved Limerick.

 

 

I first come across The Hitchers in The Cresent Hall, off Limerick’s main drag, on a Saturday afternoon in 1989. I’d been summoned for jury duty on a national school band competition run by the long-time Cork promoter, Denis Desmond and, far more importantly, was delighted to be scoping out the hall where U2 had played a chaotic live show back in 1980. The Hitchers – then a five-piece led by Eoin O’Kelly – were head and shoulders above anything else I saw during that competition and it was no surprise when they romped home during the final in Connolly Hall later that year. From behind the traps, Niall Quinn was clearly the band’s driving force and, despite the tinny sound in the venue, I can still hum my way through some of their set, of which ‘There’s A Bomb In That Basket Of Fruit’, ‘Which Leg Of A Chicken Is More Tender ?’ and ‘Alice Is Here’ were the obvious stand-outs among many.

 

 

The Hitchers also featured on ‘The Reindeer Age’, a compendium of various odds and ends released on the Xeric label which, as a compilation of the numerous emerging bands around Limerick was a damned fine calling card one, hinting at a wide breath of activity and ambition within the old walls. It was through The Hitchers, and especially their manager and mentor, John Moriarty, that I first established a real connection there and, subsequently, a couple of good leads on some of the other young bands in the city, among them The Cranberries and Those Stilted Boys.

 

 

Those Stilted Boys were highly regarded among their peers and I heard an awful lot about them before I actually heard a single note from them. Their stuff was very, very ambitious and they reminded me then, as they still do now, of a nervy marriage of early Prefab Sprout, Woodentops and late-period Pixies, with their restless structures, honours-level chords and smart, knowing lyrics. What seems like their entire recorded canon can be accessed on their website and, listening back almost a quarter of a century later, I am certain that I called them correctly way back and that Those Stilted Boys – led by Ciaran Culligan and Ian Dodson – were, without question, one of the country’s great unsung bands during the early 1990s. I tried long and hard to progress – unsuccessfully – a deal for them at the time and I defy anyone to listen to ‘Blow’, ‘Havana’ or ‘Akimbo’ now and tell me I was out of order and off the mark ?

 

 

The Cranberries story was already nicely formed by the summer of 1991 and, after a pretty intensive courtship, the band had recently thrown in its chips with Island Records, a deal I’m convinced was consummated after their appearance at the Cork Rock event in Sir Henry’s weeks earlier. They were still based locally and, billeted in Xeric Studios, were working on a debut album against the sound of incessant love-bombing by the likes of Jim Carroll, Shane Fitzsimons, Stuart Clark and myself.

 

And so it was that, on July 14th, 1991, The Cranberries found themselves half- way down a wholly-Irish line-up assembled in The Peoples’ Park in the heart of Limerick city for what was billed as a ‘Lark In The Park’. The show was headlined by Wexford band Cry Before Dawn, with support sets from An Emotional FishThe Blue Angels, They Do It With Mirrors and Those Stilted Boys.

 

 

I had a vested interest in The Mirrors :- Keith Cullen had recently signed them to Setanta Records and I wanted to see for myself what the fuss was about. On tape at least they were a slow burn but quickly became one of my own favourite bands on the label. Indeed I ended up back in Limerick with them years later, working in Xeric on an unreleased third E.P. ;- one of the four outstanding cuts from which, ‘Police Me’, is now available here.

Shane Fitzsimons, who wrote an important long-running music column in The Evening Echo, was by now staging live shows in a venue called The Shelter on Tuckey Street in Cork and some of those performances have rightly assumed mythical status in local music history. Those Stitled Boys, The Cranberries and They Do It With Mirrors all took to the small stage there to enthusiastic crowds and left real smoke in their slipstreams.

 

From Churchtown on the southside of Dublin, Shane had a long standing connection with The Blue Angels, who also featured on the ‘Lark In The Park’ bill in Limerick and who too played at least one raucous set in The Shelter. The Blue Angels were a secondary iteration of Blue In Heaven, traditionally a serious and regular live draw in Cork. They’d added a new guitarist to their existing line- up and were continuing on the more considered and broader pathway they’d built on their second album, ‘Explicit Material’ ;- less Martin Hannett and more Jimmy Miller, basically. Where once they’d been a dank, mid-range indie-outfit, they now rocked a fuller, more rounded sound. Blue In Heaven will feature prominently in a future post here about their long-standing contemporaries from Churchtown, Into Paradise, but suffice to say for now that I was a staunch supporter.

 

The Blue Angels released one very tidy if unspectacular album on Solid Records, ‘Coming Out Of Nowhere’, and, in theory, I should have despised everything about them. They represented, in so many ways, the very worst aspects of the scene built on sand around ‘the city of a thousand rock bands’ but, in practice, I found their angular Stones/stoned shapes just too hard to resist. I saw them whenever I could and reviewed them enthusiastically ;- as with far too many bands over the years, I regularly ditched perspective for hyperbole and The Angels received several very public fan-letters from me over the years.

 

By the summer of 1991 An Emotional Fish were one of the country’s biggest live draws and ‘Celebrate’ was an obvious ace in their pack. I found them lumpy at the best of times and was never completely convinced by the hoopla around them. It wasn’t until their second album, ‘Junk Puppets’ – and specifically the exceptional ‘Careless Child’, which was produced by Dave Stewart – that I heard anything of substance to write home about. Working closely with Into Paradise, I subsequently encountered An Emotional Fish all over Britain and Europe ;- there was a time when we seemed to be following each other around the same circuit for ages. But in a field in Limerick, back in August 1991, I found far more comfort in all that I knew best and, on the day, even The Beatles would have struggled to live with Those Stitled Boys, They Do It With Mirrors, The Cranberries and The Blue Angels.

 

And as for Cry Before Dawn, who headlined the show ? God loves a trier. My review of the event was carried in the following morning’s Cork Examiner and it’s carried in full below.

 

Published in The Cork Examiner July 15th, 1991, under the headline ‘Limerick rocks near pop heaven’ 

 

There was no sun, just lots of light rain, but we didn’t mind one bit. Limerick is always a pleasure and it’s bands are better. Yesterday we stood through six hours of free, live outdoor pop at the town’s People’s Park and we left smiling.

 

This was Limerick’s Lark In The Park and 6,000 people came. Lots danced. Those Stilted Boys are up and all over us with jazz guitars and affected voices and wonderfully pretty songs like ‘Akimbo’ and ‘Havana’ and it stops raining. Clever lines and Chris Issak smirks and Those Stilted Boys are on the elevator to the top floors of pop’s hotels.

 

They Do It With Mirrors are Keith Cullen’s brand new Setanta band, four guitar funksters on the lunatic fringes. They’ve got a tiny frontman, Kevin, and an enormously strange voice. Lots of off-beat guitar and frothy-headed bass. See them play Shane’s Shelter on Wednesday. Please.

 

The Blue Angels are here with a vengeance. This band plays dirty, grimy rock songs with little keyboard bits. ‘Get It Back’ and ‘Candy’ are the singles that owe bits to U2’s ‘With Or Without You’. Now, let’s not gripe :- Shane O’Neill is still very much a star and today, Limerick loves him.

 

 

The Cranberries too. This is the band with the reviews, the new Island Records band, and that voice. They’re brilliantly good again. ‘The Same Old Story’ spills all over us and, with ‘Put Me Down’, we are gobsmacked once again at the voice and the untouched pop songs. They’re innocent and they’re charmingly naïve. They might be too twee, buy hey, today they were top.

 

An Emotional Fish followed with that sound and Cry Before Dawn lead us out and bore us halfway to tears. We’re tired and emotional. Limerick is near pop heaven, 60 miles west. Don’t drive idly by.

THE CRANBERRIES :- THE FIRST REVIEW

Cranberries - pre signed - first Henrys gig

Picture Courtesy of Siobhan O Mahony

Strange as it sounds now but there was a time when The Cranberries were easily the most remarkable young band in Ireland having emerged, quite literally, from out of nowhere. Theirs is of course a well-worn and hoary old story, albeit one pock-marked with crudely-formed testimonials and urban myths. And this is something I’ll return to in a future post.

One of the early driving forces behind the band was, I think, Pearse Gilmore who, among other things, fronted his own group, Private World, and also ran Xeric, a studio and rehearsal complex located on Edward Street in Limerick city. A curious sampler album, ‘The Reindeer Age’, released in early 1990, showcased a mixed bag of Limerick bands, all of them captured on tape in Xeric by Gilmore. The likes of They Do It With Mirrors, Tuesday Blue, Toucandance, The Hitchers and Private World themselves were notables among the large cast. Something was clearly afoot.

The Cranberries didn’t feature on ‘The Reindeer Age’ and yet, within six months, had over-taken their peers on every level.I was on a watching brief at this time :- apart from [over] enthusing about them in a variety of different outlets, I was also scouting them for Setanta Records. Our attention had been drawn the previous year to a slipshod demo that featured an early version of ‘Linger’ and that had been circulated under the name The Cranberry Saw Us.  Indeed there was a point when Keith Cullen at Setanta felt he’d finally snared them. In the end, after a year-long harry-and-chase, the band signed with Island Records instead.

Myself and another young writer, Jim Carroll, reviewed them frequently and with no little zest around this time, often travelling together to shows in Limerick. The fact that The Cranberries were from outside of Dublin – well protected from the scene that celebrated itself– only made them more alluring. By the summer of 1991, a handful of emerging bands based in Ireland’s regions were cutting ferocious shapes. And the strength of that scene was reflected in the line-up at that year’s Cork Rock event in Sir Henry’s, which featured The Frank And Walters, The Sultans of Ping, Therapy, Toasted Heretic and The I.R.S. among others. It was The Cranberries, who also played, who went on to dominate them all.

I first met them for an early Hot Press interview one warm Saturday afternoon in Limerick and I couldn’t get over how naïve they were. They told me that they had very few, if any influences, didn’t listen to many records and that their songs ‘just came out’. Noel Hogan was gilding the lily, without question, but Dolores was genuinely clueless.

Cranberries - number 2

Picture courtesy of Siobhan O Mahony

Live they were fragile and very, very basic. Gilmore had given them a stylish spit-and-polish in studio, something they struggled to replicate when they played live. Noel and Mike were struggling with their instruments [guitar and bass respectively] and the drummer, Fergal Lawlor, was the band’s pivot. But even then it was Dolores who dominated. In a flicked page-boy cut, standard indie duds and fresh Doc Marten boots, she cut a familiar but magnetic presence :- after gigs she’d routinely change into a multi-coloured tracksuit and couldn’t really give a flying one.

This review, for Melody Maker magazine, is an earnest and awkward attempt to capture the band’s charm and their incredible promise, while alluding also to their gormlessness.I was struggling with my craft as manfully as The Cranberries were struggling with their instruments, resorting to An Emotional Fish for my sign-off.

The show in question took place in the confined spaces of the College Bar in University College Cork in October, 1991, to a small but very keen audience. Pearse Gilmore – a tall, lean and most distinctive man – was very prominent around the venue on the night, and especially around the sound-desk. The venue was a well-known sound-trap and quality audio there was often a difficult ask. Not that it mattered.

The Cranberries, in their own mild way, blew the place asunder.

This review appeared originally in Melody Maker magazine on October 19th, 1991. I’ve made some minor edits to the original copy.

The Cranberries

College Bar, U.C.C., October, 1991

The Cranberries are probably too tender for all of this but, right now, they have all of our hopes to weigh them down. They’re charming little innocents, so untouched, so perfect, so astoundingly pure. They’ve come from a city that isn’t Dublin, from a county where politics are conservative and where Gaelic games and rugby offer some small social hope. They think small, embarrassed by what they’ve suddenly become. By what we’ve painted them up to be.

To singer Dolores, pop songs have no truck with video and make-up, nothing to do with fanciful clothes. She’s stopped reading her band’s press because she doesn’t need us to tell her who she is. And when she stands still, saying little, in place like this, it’s because she’s unsure about all of the fuss. The Cranberries, understand, are charmingly naïve ;- its their single greatest attribute. They have no idea how good they are, of how important they might yet become.

The Cranberries had never heard of The Sundays or The Throwing Muses nine months ago – their songs just happened, ‘they just came out’, and we believe that. They’re too frail to be contrived. And while lines like ‘I was just 16 years old when I married you, and now its just a stupid mess, I don’t know what to do’ seem trite, then you should understand that Dolores is eighteen years old and coming from what is essentially a very narrow rural tradition. And she writes nothing like The Saw Doctors.

Tonight is all very full ; lots of songs, gorgeous songs. ‘Put Me Down’ with its spine-shrill, jangle-and-hum, ‘Linger’ with its spellbound simplicity, ‘Dreams’ with its curious drum thud. Dolores even plays some acoustic guitar but it just looks all wrong, all too cumbersome for her. It still sounds very fine, of course, and ‘Reason’ and ‘Pathetic Senses’ become the huge, simmering pop songs that Johnny Marr, for instance, would collect and play. ‘Liar’ owes to Pixies’ ‘Is She Weird’ but we’re not here to look for clues.

We’re here to love a band wholly. To hug and kiss. Beauty does what beauty does best. Be beautiful.