The Late Late Show

PAT FITZPATRICK

The death was announced earlier today, after an illness, of the Belfast-born musician, arranger and producer, Pat ‘Fitzy’ Fitzpatrick who, although he never enjoyed a profile as a solo performer in his own right, was a highly-regarded musician and a much-loved figure on the Irish music scene since the late 1970s.

 

Having studied at the Royal College of Music in London, he first came to prominence as the keyboard player in Katmandu, the Belfast five-piece whose Roxy-inspired pop-art ambitions saw them move their operation down the road to Dublin, where they briefly captivated the locals. Also featuring Marty Lundy, Peter McKinney and Trevor Hutchinson, Katmandu issued one single, ‘I Can Make The Future’ and, although broader success eluded them, their smart, new-wave sound – of which Pat was a chief architect – certainly put them at a remove from many of their more direct, full-force contemporaries.

 

 

But it was as an adjunct live member of many established Irish rock bands – like Something Happens, Aslan and The Blades – that Pat was most frequently seen and heard. Apart from his humour and his general affability, he had a serenity and a beautiful touch – that he deployed in both regular conversation and in his music – that endeared him to all of those he encountered. And he was helped too, of course, by his magnificent ability as a player, a fact not lost on the late Beatles producer, George Martin, who name-checked him as his favourite Irish musician. And lost neither on the array of Irish and international artists, across numerous genres – from Van Morrison to Mary Coughlan to Colm Wilkinson – who routinely availed of his services as a session player, arranger and producer and who invariably reaped the benefits.

 

It was through my numerous postings as a producer in RTÉ television that I worked directly with Pat over many years. Because throughout his colourful, varied and ultimately all-too-short career, he was a frequent visitor to the national broadcaster’s television and radio studios. He led the house band during the early years of the Saturday night entertainment strand, ‘Kenny Live’, and later worked as a musical director on the Brian Kennedy light entertainment series, ‘One To Remember’, most notably.

 

But the tape archive in RTÉ is flush with his numerous performances alongside a host of visiting artists and musicians, primarily on the high-profile chat shows, bookings that often took us into all manner of bizarre territory. My friend, Caroline Henry, diaried many of those acts – local, national and international – over the years and, when the going got heavy, as it frequently did, and when we’d worry about some act or other’s capacity – or, often, lack of ability – to deliver a decent turn during a live television broadcast in front of an audience, Pat was our regular fall-back. When the going got weird, we’d turn to a pro.

 

And he’d fetch up in standard rock attire replete, more often than not, in a leather jacket and snazzy, well-kept shoes and calmly take control of any situation, over-seeing the storms as they passed and then, quietly and without fuss, pull his kit together and make his way home. He was a vital comfort to us.

 

It was as the fifth member of Something Happens, during that phase in their career – between 1990 and 1994 especially – when they more or less owned contemporary Irish music, were a constant television and radio presence and were as good a live act as any, that Pat’s face – and the magic in his hands – will have maybe registered most. Buttressing their formidable live shows from around ‘Stuck Together With God’s Glue’ onwards, he routinely belted out the opening bars of ‘Parachute’, still the band’s signature piece, while decorating the body of their sets unfussily and with no little brio. He was an imposing musician and player, a real stylist, but he knew too how to play as part of a team.

 

 

Outside of his regular session work in studio, in theatre and on the road, Pat latterly featured as a member of The Blades’ live retinue, the socially-sussed, mod-infused outfit that, earlier this year, released it’s second album in thirty years. In July, 2014 and, I guess, for no other reason than we just couldn’t see why not, we booked them to perform a live version of one of their best known numbers, ‘The Last Man In Europe’ on ‘Saturday Night With Miriam, a prime-time RTÉ television chat and entertainment show I’d been assigned to. And, as always, Pat was in studio early for the afternoon rehearsals, ready to go before anyone else. But once The Blades had closed out the show later that evening, he politely conducted his constituency work in the green room afterwards, carefully assembled his kit and then quietly made for home.

 

Three weeks ago, knowing he was unwell, he played live one last time with The Blades, this time in Whelan’s in Dublin where, as he’d routinely done all throughout his career with numerous others, he punctuated their songs, old and new, with his usual finesse and discerning hands. He brought to that band what he long brought to all those who were lucky enough to have worked with him or known him :- style, substance, spirit and savvy.

 

He leaves a long and mighty legacy. And he is already sorely missed.

 

I WAS GEORGE MARTIN’S PRODUCER

george martin

 

I worked as Pat Kenny’s television producer during the late 1990s and, alongside my colleague Noel Curran, over-saw the presenter’s first ever Late Late Show as host, which was broadcast live on RTÉ One on September 10th, 1999.

 

I’d produced Pat on his Saturday night chat-show, ‘Kenny Live’, the previous season and found myself on the fringes of the small group charged with the transition out of the Gay Byrne-era and onwards to different pastures. The whole experience was as challenging, stressful, exciting, frustrating and, ultimately, as terrific as you’d expect and, in the years since, I’ve become even more certain that we worked as hard as we could in taking on what was always going to be an invidious task. As was remarked by the late George Byrne in a prescient preview piece in The Irish Independent at the time, Pat  Kenny was damned if he took on The Late Late Show and he was damned if he didn’t.

 

Having seen Pat in action close-up from the inside and the outside, I think that history will be far kinder to him once he steps off of the field for good than it was during that point in both of our careers.

 

Although best-regarded as a skilled political and current affairs interviewer, there was always a bit more side to Pat. Fifteen years previously, I’d been one of his loyal listeners when he presented a Saturday evening album review show on what was then Radio 2. Produced by Julian Vignoles, ‘The Outside Track’ was where I first heard Microdisney played in the national schedules before the dead of night ;- reviewing the band’s first album, ‘Everybody Is Fantastic’, Pat played a couple of tracks – one of which was certainly ‘Escalator In The Rain’ – before steering his small panel of reviewers through an informed assessment of the record. You’d hear all sorts on that programme, a reflection of the influence and breath of musical reference brought to the table by both presenter and producer, who pulled from far and wide. From blues, pure folk and traditional Irish music to pop, rock and even contemporary alternative, nothing was off limits.

 

Given my own background and the many years I spent hanging around bands, loitering   and sticking my oar in, I’ve always tried, whenever possible, to showcase as wide a range of music as possible – new music, more often than not – on all of my television assignments, be that in children’s programmes, documentary, sport or entertainment.  And I have many other colleagues, both inside RTÉ and outside, who do and think  likewise.

 

 

 

One of the real freedoms we enjoyed on ‘Kenny Live’ was the scope to push the envelope a bit when it came to music. While the big visiting acts to Ireland were offered, more often than not, to The Late Late Show – it had a bigger audience, longer history and an international reputation – excellent music bookers like Caroline Henry and Alan Byrne worked long and hard to mine different seams and we never shied from giving anyone a leg up once a tune or a performance stood strong. During the last season of ‘Kenny Live’ in 1998/1999, for instance, we continued a habit long-forged on the show and featured several blistering studio performances by the likes of The Frames, The Prayer Boat and Sack, who provided magical interludes on running orders that, otherwise, would have lacked distinction.

 

Unlike Gay Byrne, Pat had a real affinity for rock and popular music and wasn’t sceptical of or patronising to young performers. As a one-time ballad singer on the Dublin circuit during the late 1960s, he tended to cut all musicians an even break and, over his many years on radio and television, has consistently supported emerging music and engaged with it. It was on ‘Today With Pat Kenny’ on RTÉ Radio One, for instance, that I first heard a young James Vincent McMorrow who, between two startling live acoustic performances, gave his host a nervous but warm interview and, consequently, left an impressive calling card. In the best traditions of the music anorak, I pulled my car over that morning to savour the item, careful to note Pat’s back-reference and the young performer’s name and details. And to maybe, however fleetingly, help me to purge the memory of Pat’s partisan support for Garth Brooks and Charlie Landsborough, the amiable Liverpudlian who, during one dire live performance of ‘Molly Malone’ on ‘Kenny Live’, sang the words not from his heart but from the autocue.

 

I still remember Pat’s instinctive reaction when, late one Saturday afternoon, he dropped  by Studio 4 just as Sack, one of my pet Dublin bands from that period, were sound-checking the wondrous ‘Laughter Lines’ ;- he was genuinely bowled over by the breath of Martin McCann’s live vocal performance as this incredible song was careering into it’s  apex. Following the band’s performance live on the show later that same evening, he went off script to compliment the band in his back-reference. As someone who had long heard one horror story after another about the experiences of young bands and musicians on the floors of the RTÉ studios, I saw Pat’s enthusiasm as one of the few areas where we had a real edge over our rivals. An edge that was never really going to translate into viewing figures, shares and numbers but which, far more importantly, was part of a wider public remit.

 

Pat was a bag of nerves on the day of his first Late Late Show in September, 1999, as indeed we were in the production gallery. One of the programme’s researchers, Neasa  McLoughlin, moved heaven and earth to land the footballer, Roy Keane, as the opening night’s star turn and, on a show that also featured Sonia O’Sullivan – and her baby daughter, Ciara – as well as the journalist Ed Moloney among others, I felt like, whatever about the rest of the country, I’d certainly done my bit for Cork.

 

George Martin also featured on the line-up that night. Accompanied by a sixteen-piece orchestra, he cut an impressive figure at the grand piano as he performed an instrumental version of The Beatles’ ‘Here, There And Everywhere’, which he’d produced on the band’s ‘Revolver’ album in 1966. With another nod to the Cork quota, the string players featured, among their number, an old friend of mine from Watercourse Road, Eileen Murphy, as one of it’s principal violinists.

 

The Dublin-based promoter, Pat Egan, had booked George Martin for a live show in The National Concert Hall and, as part of the marketing campaign around that event, had offered the legendary producer and composer to The Late Late Show late in the day. But it mattered little ;- we were always going to accommodate George Martin and, as well as confirming him for a live performance, also proposed a light, five-minute interview with Pat towards the end of the first part of the show. The other live music acts on the night were The Bumblebees, a terrific, all-female group of edgy traditional and folk players who included the Buncrana-born fiddler, Liz Doherty, among their number and also Mary Black, the well-known singer and a staple of Late Late Shows past. All of the acts were booked by Alan Byrne, still of Something Happens and a classically trained double-bassist who now directs the show.

 

Gearóid McIntyre, who was working with Pat Egan at the time, accompanied George and his wife, Judy, to the studio complex earlier that afternoon and, on pulling into the front of the studio block, they were greeted by a small group of press photographers, there to cover the day’s events as they unfolded. George was well into his seventies at that stage but I remember him clearly as a tall, handsome man, in a snappy charcoal-coloured suit, crisp shirt and red tie. From the moment he entered the building until he left it hours later, he was as warm and generous as the tributes to him have been since his death was announced yesterday.

 

The sound-check itself was an absolute non-event ;- with the piano freshly tuned, and with the small orchestra already in situ and sight-reading their parts from scripts, George was quickly and unfussily in concert with them. He introduced himself, briefly instructed them on the pace of the piece and, together, they just instinctively went at it. Once we’d rehearsed for camera angles and once our sound team was happy with levels and balances, I was introduced to George, shook his hand and thanked him for doing us the honour. The pleasure, he told me, was all his and I got the sense that, despite where his career in music had taken him, and despite his long-running issues with hearing loss, that he still got a kick, certainly from playing and performance, if not necessarily from listening to music.

 

Six months previously, in the same studio. we’d hosted a fully-mimed performance and painful interview from the American singer, Mariah Carey, who’d arrived on site with a string of PR flunkeys in a slew of high-end hire cars and who’d insisted on a full studio lock-down for the duration of her time on the premises. Her team had been an almighty pain in the hole to deal with and, on the morning of the recording, our office took a call from one of Carey’s handlers asking, without a trace of irony, if the RTÉ concourse was big enough to take the number of stretch limousines that were due to arrive onto it later that day. I’m not sure I helped anyone’s humour when, on greeting the singer in the foyer, I mis-pronounced her name and referred to her as Maria. And yes, she’s an easy target but the gulf in class between her and George Martin, on every conceivable level, couldn’t possibly have been wider.

 

On the morning after our first Late Late Show, I rung my mother and asked her for her thoughts on the previous evening’s events. She hated what we’d done to one of her favourite shows and she wasn’t holding back. Resorting to one of her favourite local slang words it was, she concluded, ‘a bake’. Pat was no Gay Byrne, the guests were shocking, we hadn’t given enough prizes to the studio audience and there was little or nothing in the mix for her or for her friends. ‘But George Martin’, she was careful to add, ‘Well … he was absolutely beautiful’.

 

And, as ever, she said it better and said it best.

 

 

 

HINTERLAND

Hinterland [noun] :- The back of beyond, the middle of nowhere, the backwoods, the wilds, the bush, remote areas, a backwater.

If nothing else, they certainly choose the name well. Twenty-six years after the release of their excellent album, ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’, you’ll struggle to find Hinterland mentioned in even the grass verges of contemporary Irish music history. Apart from their only long-player and the singles cut from it – the brooding ‘Dark Hill’ and ‘Desert Boots’, the breezy and most out-of-character chart hit – and one or two other minor issues, they’ve left little behind by way of prints and hard evidence. The usual on-line outlets are pretty scant on supporting detail and even the Hot Press digital archive which, to its credit, is usually a deep resource is, in this instance, practically empty.

And I suppose in many ways it’s always been thus. Hinterland never really ran with the pack and, even while signed to Island Records during the peak of the post-U2 insanity around Dublin, were generally regarded as an oddity. While lesser outfits made great welcomes for themselves, Hinterland were rarely seen and seldom heard ;- little was really known of them and they tended to give nothing away.

David Bowie’s death brought Gerry Leonard out from the shadows again and, once more, onto the national airwaves. The Dublin-born guitarist, now trading as Spooky Ghost had, for the previous fifteen years, been at Bowie’s elbow as a member of his backing band and as a sometime collaborator. Thirty years back, he was Donal Coghlan’s other half in Hinterland, a two-man operation that, according to Coghlan’s notes on a long-neglected website, formed in Denmark on January 7th, 1987.

Both Coghlan and Leonard had served their time on the Dublin circuit during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Leonard most notably with Above The Thunderclouds [who, for genealogists, also featured Joey Barry, later of Thee Amazing Colossal Men and Compulsion] and The Spies. Coghlan had featured in The Departure – alongside a former RTÉ colleague of mine, Declan Lucas – but, beyond that, had tended to keep his distance.

Hinterland fell out of nowhere, more or less. By 1988, Dublin was often characterised as ‘the city of a thousand rock bands’ and, in the aftermath of U2’s breakthrough in America, was certainly a city caught in the footlights. We’ve dealt with this in a couple of previous posts, and those are available here and here. If Dublin was defined then by any dominant sound, it was the sound of crudely lashed guitars. And if it had a defining career path, that path started on the live stages in the dive bars and venues around the borough. Dublin’s best known bands of the period – U2 themselves, Aslan, Something Happens, The Slowest Clock, The Stars Of Heaven, Blue In Heaven, A House, Guernica – were all compelling live draws who’d cut their teeth in the dens. Reputations were hard earned – and as easily lost – on the unsteady stages in The Underground, The Baggot Inn, McGonagles, The White Horse, The New Inn and elsewhere. And many’s the callow, impressionable four or five piece that was simply swallowed whole and spat back out into the spray, finished.

In the decades before smart technology so drastically re-wrote the rules of the process, most local recordings were made in the various studios that had sprung up around the city. Even the cutting of demo material was often newsworthy stuff to anoraks and alickadoos and word was quick to get around about who was doing what, with whom and where. Like another of their peers, Swim, Hinterland were far more comfortable within the confined parameters of the studio and, having returned to Dublin, both Coghlan and Leonard were working out of a small recording facility on Aungier Street. The two-man line-up gave Hinterland a real cohesion but, like Steve Belton and Pat O’Donnell before them [and maybe We Cut Corners after them ?], restricted their impact as a live act. Where, despite the many sequenced sounds, loops and tapes brought into play, the subtleties at the core of their material ran the risk of being lost in unreliable live mixes and unwelcoming venues.

Like Belton and O’Donnell – who eventually augmented their ranks and re-positioned themselves as The Fountainhead – Hinterland were managed by Kieran Owens, a canny operator with excellent ears who, like many of the acts he worked with, is often under-appreciated in the history of that period. It was Owens who over-saw the band’s deal with Island Records – signed on the strength of strong demo tapes alone – and who brokered Hinterland’s relationship with the young Newbridge-raised producer and engineer, Chris O’Brien with whom, on April 27th, 1989, Donal Coghlan and Gerry Leonard began work on what was to be the band’s first and only album.

Like many before and after them, Hinterland’s career was pockmarked by a series of unfortunate events, many of them outside of their control and, in essence, they never really left the starting gate. Which, in many respects, only adds to their lustre. ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’ is a brave, difficult record ;- it resides, for the sake of reference, in a drawer alongside ‘Til Tuesday, later-period Blue Nile and early-period Big Dish and it divided opinion on delivery. It’s a tender, gentle and unflinchingly personal collection of songs that, as well as piling on layers of nuanced sounds, doesn’t fear the space either. The record is at it’s most beautiful when it pauses for breath and crawls.

Chris remembers the record and the sessions that produced it fondly and was a real help to me as I sought to put flesh on some of my more crudely formed views on one of my favourite records. I owe him a real debt for dusting down his old diaries and for helping to join the dots.

‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’ was put down over a fourteen week period in Ropewalk Studios in Ringsend in Dublin, even if much of it arrived pre-packed. Deep, ornate foundations had been laid by Leonard and Coghlan in their own small studio, where the vocals, guitars and keyboards were supported by ‘an Atari sequencer running Pro24 software’. That the band opted to record the album locally was typical ;- common practice at the time was to take long-form recording projects abroad, usually to the U.K.. But Hinterland were happier around the familiar ;- Ringsend was practically in their own back-yard.

Ropewalk was Dublin’s first fully digital studio and, once the band and studio crew fetched up, the primary objectives were to create a live drum sound and to layer-up and polish the general soundscape. Chris remembers the whole process in detail ;- he particularly recalls Gerry Leonard’s guitar sound [‘one of the three most recognisable players in Dublin, along with Ray Harman and The Edge, especially in his use of finger-picking and when he played slide’] and Donal’s lyrics, most of which were rooted in the darkly personal. The sessions were intensive and the working days were long ;- the core crew worked from 11 every morning until after midnight and the only concession to type was the catering that was provided daily on site. At one stage, Island’s flamboyant owner, Chris Blackwell, dropped by – replete in sunglasses and shorts – to listen to the work in progress and to cast an ear on the material.

The band was augmented during the recording – and later when they toured – by Wayne Sheehy, one of the country’s most physical and capable drummers and who, in a past life, had played with Cactus World News, among others. And yet on several tracks, his role was pared right back, often confined to complicated rhythms and rolls :- it was as if Coghlan and Leonard were challenging him, testing the cut of his gib.

 

 

But the playing throughout is magnificent and the record boasts many special moments. ‘Dark Hill’ apart, a soft magic runs through ‘Handle Me’ which, in my view, is the record’s heart. An unsettlingly personal song, it looks into the future and pictures the physical disintegration of a loyal lover’s spirit and body. Elsewhere, ‘Stanley’s Minutes’ records the death of ‘a down-and out from the The Iveagh Hostel’ in the shadows of the Pro Cathedral in Dublin and, over a trade-mark guitar entry concludes with a real cut ;- ‘Thanks be to God it wasn’t suicide. There’s no such thing as suicide’.

And there are others too ;- ‘Senior Romantics’, with it’s breathy backing vocals by Leslie Mooney, the airy ‘Galway Bay’ and ‘Dive The Deepest’ among the diadem. And although ‘Desert Boots’, with it’s rattle and pluck, is out of character with both the rest of the record and with the band’s song-book generally, the warm, Mumford-esque gallivant name-checks St. Anne’s Park in Raheny, The Dandelion Market and The Burrow Beach in Sutton on it’s breezy journey through Dublin city. It is, in its own way, as poignant a local snapshot of youth as Whipping Boy’s ‘When We Were Young’.

I can remember the first time I clapped eyes on Hinterland. ‘Jo Maxi’ was a popular youth series that dominated the tea-time schedules on what was then Network 2 during the late 1980s and that, to it’s credit, consistently supported all manner of new music, much of it Irish. Sat there one evening on a small studio rostrum in his fresh black denims, stacked-sole shoes and fisherman’s hat, Donal Coghlan looked typically disconcerted, humble. Gerry and himself gave a basic synopsis of Hinterland’s story, mentioned their deal with a major label and then one of the presenters cued a short clip of the ‘Dark Hill’ video.

Apart from a subsequent Late Late Show appearance in support of ‘Desert Boots’, a couple of minor jousts with myself on another youth series, ‘Scratch Saturday’ and an afternoon encounter with Ray D’Arcy and Zig and Zag on ‘The Den’, not a whole lot more remains in the video archive. The album came and went and the band headed out into the open in support of it, playing one particular blinder in De Lacy House in Cork and opening for Prefab Sprout [with whom, philosophically, the band was very aligned] on the ‘Jordan : The Comeback’ tour in The Point Depot in Dublin. ‘Desert Boots’, with it’s cutesy video and wide-screen notions, generated an amount of popular traction and airplay but, even then, you suspected that Hinterland were just a band out of time, destined to forever play catch-up.

In a terraced house in Ealing, West London, in 1991, myself and my landlord, Ken Sweeney, would marvel at them. Ken, who was recording for Setanta Records as Brian, had rescued me from a deranged set-up in a squat in Peckham and now, safe and warm and far away across town, we’d swap war stories in the evenings and talk long into the nights about Miracle Legion, Into Paradise and The Go-Betweens. Hinterland too were de-constructed at length in Ealing ;- I’d been sent a copy of ‘Resurrect’, a four-track E.P containing three new songs and also ‘Love Quarantine’, the magnificent ‘Desert Boots’ B-side that the band felt didn’t quite fit onto ‘Kissing The Roof of Heaven’, and we gorged on it. Donal and Gerry were looking ahead to a second album and were flouting their prowess with a handful of optimistic and ambitious songs, ‘Born Again [Excuse The Pun]’ most memorably among them.

But the ship failed to find port and, by 1994, Hinterland more or less ceased to be ;- the band’s efforts to crack the American market were unsuccessful and, eventually, they were let go by their record company. Hinterland exited the stage just as they’d entered onto it ;- quietly and without fanfare and to the sound of a loyal few clapping. When, years later, Donal Coghlan made a cameo appearance on Brian’s second Setanta album, 1999’s ‘Bring Trouble’, it completed a circle of sorts and also reminded a handful of us of what could, should and might have been.

By that stage, Gerry Leonard had already left Ireland for New York and, as he did so, Donal Coghlan repaired closer to home, coming to grips, literally, with the M.S., diagnosed years previously, that was impacting on his mobility, if not his spirit. It was only after the band had released ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’ that he revealed his long struggle with the degenerative illness and, by so doing, maybe cast another light into some of the more personal songs on that album.

I last met Donal in 2000 in his apartment in Dublin city. He was in chipper form, confined increasingly to a wheelchair and was a proud father to a young son, Zac. The previous year he’d directed his first short film, ‘The Spa’, and had written another short, ‘Handy Andy’, both of which were made through the Lights, Disability, Action initiative and had been screened at The Galway Film Festival. He was, as always, terrific company, clear in his own mind that he’d left able-bodied society and wasn’t returning, already busy as a campaigner and advocate for disability issues.

I think about Donal Coghlan quite a bit and regularly return to ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’ and, when I heard Gerry Leonard on radio paying tribute to David Bowie recently, he sprung across my mind once again. Donal Coghlan’s writing may not have re-defined popular music and the way we listened to it but, in his own way, has left it’s own kind of under-stated, under-regarded magic as a legacy.

Hinterland clearly mean little in the recent history of Irish popular music and, understandable as that is, they’re in good company. Into Paradise, Jubilee Allstars, Pony Club and Ten Speed Racer are among the notable others who, outside of the blind sadism of die-hards and anoraks, rarely command the acknowledgement they’re due. But ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’, with it’s stories and it’s screams, is always worth re-visiting and, knowing more now than we ever did back then, deserves an all-over re-appraisal.

 

 

 

 

 

RONANISM

Boyzone_(3616878998)

Commons Wikipedia

 

I wrote a weekly music column in The Sunday Tribune newspaper for a number of years during the mid and late 1990s. Helen Callanan, the editor who hired me and Matt Cooper, who inherited me, had far more pressing matters to deal with on a weekly basis and so I was usually left alone and given a fair amount of licence. Sharing the same space once a week with some of the finest journalists and feature writers in the country, I believed I was doing the paper a real service but, reading back on some of those columns now, I can’t believe how crude some of my writing was. Having strong opinions was all very well and good but expressing those succinctly and clearly in print was far more difficult.

The years I spent contributing to The Sunday Tribune paralleled with Boyzone’s development from the in-joke unveiled on The Late Late Show in 1993 to the stadium-sized cabaret turn that was manfully working the European circuit a matter of years later. Boyzone were Ireland’s first manufactured pop band of real scale and had a couple of interesting side-stories, most of which only emerged after the group split up. I thought they were dire, and certainly nowhere near as convincing as Take That, the popular, clean-cut British boy band on whose blueprint Boyzone was conceived and whose ambitions they shared. But I also thought that Ronan, Keith, Mikey, Stephen and Shane were just too easy a target and so, initially, I tended to steer clear of them in print. When I wasn’t gushing about my latest local fancies, there were far more legitimate targets for the negative stuff and, when it came to Boyzone, I just stood back and applauded their audacity, marvelling at the scale of their necks.

I’d met Louis Walsh, initially Boyzone’s co-manager, the odd time ;- he’d hawked a couple of moderately decent indie bands around the scene in his time and, for all of his blather, seemed harmless enough. But the emergence of Take That, East 17 and The Backstreet Boys had awoken a different sort of yearning in him and he’d re-defined himself as an out-and-out puppetmaster. The Irish media market had recently expanded too and, as more and more newspapers and radio stations entered the local fray, Walsh wasn’t short of champions. His mobile number was, and remains, one of the most gettable in Ireland and he was often as regular a fixture in print and on the airwaves as any of his charges.

One of the more interesting aspects of Boyzone’s success was in how Walsh manipulated the media in Ireland – and later in Britain – to hype an act that was so severely limited, even within the narrow parameters of their genre. Indeed the access to and the ease with which Walsh toyed with the media is far more interesting than anything his numerous groups have ever committed to wax. With the odd exception, this aspect of the Boyzone story went largely unremarked. Louis Walsh knows particular parts of pop music history intimately but, when you’re selling snake oil, it’s as important to know the system, to fully grasp the concept of supply and demand. In an emerging media market, he provided regular parcels  of good, sneery copy ;- he was ready, available and loud.

The pair of us had a couple of decent rows over the years and, to his credit, he always defended his corner stoutly, often using the darker arts he’d learned during his long apprenticeship around the chicken supper circuit. Like many of the Svengalis who preceded him, he favoured a handful of lackeys in the media to which he’d routinely drip all manner of nonsense, most of which, in the spirit of churnalism, made its way straight to print or onto air, no questions asked. Walsh dealt exclusively and comprehensively in flat earth news and, for years, he had no shortage of takers.

In May, 1997, RTÉ hosted that year’s Eurovision Song Contest live from Dublin’s Point Depot. Boyzone’s leader and primary vocalist, Ronan Keating, presented the annual competition for European broadcasters alongside another emerging television personality, Carrie Crowley who, among her many talents, was a genuine blues singer with a serious range. Keating was also asked to write and perform – with Boyzone – the interval piece that would buttress the show on the night. After Bill Whelan’s ‘Riverdance’ had detonated so spectacularly during half-time at a previous Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin in 1994, Keating was on a real hiding to nothing, and unfairly so. With as much attention lavished on the interval act as on the rest of the event, his songwriting, which heretofore was remarkably unremarkable, was about to be laid bare.

Irked by suggestions from the fringes that Boyzone were really just a hand-cut karaoke-act in smart suits by Louis Copeland, Louis Walsh would spring to robustly defend Ronan Keating ;- he went so far as to fancifully bracket him alongside the likes of Elton John and George Michael as a classic song-writer in waiting. Loyally selling his act on the one hand, Walsh was easily bored on the other and, one sensed, was simply amusing himself at the expense of a small cluster of impressionable hacks, disc jockeys and broadcasters. Because with far more charisma and ultimately more staying power than any of his acts, the more his own star developed, the more he could get away with. To this end he was liable to say anything.

Walsh never struck me as the sharpest knife in the drawer and, in the years since, I’m not especially surprised that he’s found real fame as a comedy side-kick on a formatted family entertainment show. And yet for all his ability to dole it out he has often, like many others with a sense of entitlement, had real difficulty taking it back. He took the hump royally after a Sunday Tribune piece I wrote about Keating’s Eurovision Song Contest interval composition, ‘Let The Message Run Free, and even wrote to my employers in a fit of pique to complain me for my treason. He subsequently banned all of his acts from appearing on any of the television programmes I was involved with and, on the presumption that anyone was remotely interested, raced to The Sunday World to tell them as much. For the record, I hosted several of Louis Walsh’s acts on prime-time television programmes over the years and, in so doing, played my own part in keeping the wheel turning.

Louis and Ronan Keating later fell out and went their separate ways. One presumes that the Svengali may have revised his views on his former charge’s writing abilities somewhat since and, who knows, he may even agree with me now ? Meanwhile, in a parallel world, my three young daughters love Louis Walsh ;- they know him from The X-Factor and think he’s funny, charming and absolutely fantastic. Which is far more than they think of their father.

 My Sunday Tribune piece ran on Sunday, May 11th, 1997 and we’ve re-produced it in its entirity here, under it’s original headline, ‘When critics are loyal to a fault’. We’ve made minor grammatical and syntax corrections to the original copy.

 

 

 WHEN CRITICS ARE LOYAL TO A FAULT

One of the most dangerous aspects of rock music criticism [or any other form of criticism, for that matter], sits in the co-relation between head and heart, where sentiment and loyalty are set against reality and fact. A stubborn refusal, if you will, to see the wood for the trees in order to maintain history’s legacy of balance and a peace of mind of sorts.

It happens all of the time, of course, and we’ve all pleaded guilty on occasion, although to varying extents and in varying contexts. But twice in the last fortnight, however, we’ve seen two very blatant and cowardly refusals by the mass music media, both at home and abroad, to call the real shot. And to those of us who actually genuinely care about such things, that’s a trouble.

The Seahorses, a band formed by The Stone Roses’ main man, John Squire, and the increasingly Ronan Keating-led Boyzone may, on record and on paper, at least, share nothing really in particular. What’s come to bind them over the last two weeks is a mass critical fawning and a marked media reluctance to get blunt in the cold light of bad standards.

Keating’s commissioned Eurovision piece, ‘Let The Message Run Free’, premiered to over three hundred million viewers last weekend, was the defining proof as far as I’m concerned [if, indeed, proof was ever really needed] that he and his band are seriously out of their depth on the adult stage and positively gasping, right now, for air.

As the writer of the Eurovision interval piece, Keating was always going to struggle in past company, following in a proven and trusted line of local heavy-hitters. Bill Whelan’s ‘Riverdance’ score has already, quite rightly, been feted by the international industry while both Dónal Lunny’s ‘Timedance’ [1991] and Míceál Ó Súilleabháin’s stunning 1995  showpiece, ‘Lumen’, stand tall as dazzling commissions in any context.

Given history, then, ‘Let The Message Run Free’ was completely formless, far less lightweight kitsch than a casual stir-fry of lyrical and musical clichés flung like mud at a wall, some of it sticking first time around, most of it sadly not.

Over no really discernible melody or chorus [a recurring theme in Keating’s fledgling canon], Boyzone popped a stream of karaoke one-liners that stopped at all of the standard thematic bases – from child’s eyes to light and bright to a world that is, shockingly, confused. To all intents, it’s lyrical message may have been lifted from the back of a Trócaire Lenten appeal box.

All of this comes as no real surprise to those of us who have long since refused even to acknowledge this charade, although there’s something strangely ironic about the sheer scale of the actual embarrassment. What is most peculiar, however, is how Keating’s mentor and manager, Louis Walsh [himself steeped in a Eurovision and cabaret circuit coat] can still defiantly work this country’s gullible and gossip-hungry tabloid media so impressively on the strength of such a nothing.

Eight days onwards and no one has yet dared to call the real bluff – that ‘Let The Message Run Free’ was, given the context and the legacy, flaccid and second-rate – a flatulent, cabaret salute to Europe and Boyzone’s most blatant humiliation yet.

Although with the band’s status already in decline, and with much of it’s original hardcore support now at school-going age, Louis Walsh’s  Eurovision high-jack at least helps him to maintain the image into the foreseeable. And so it’s as you were, and all of that.

I’ve always treated Manchester’s Stone Roses too with a huge suspicion that derives largely, one imagines, from the band’s inability to prove any sort of greatness in the face of adversity. Granted, the band’s lavishly over-rated first album still has it’s moments [‘I Am The Resurrection’, ‘Made Of Stone’, ‘She Bangs The Drums’ and ‘I Wanna Be Adored’, for four] but five great songs in twelve years begs obvious questions.

In hindsight, The Stone Roses’ ‘Second Coming’ was nothing more than a try-on – a blast of incomplete guitar lines and half-hearted psycho-babble hiding a desperate lack of discernible tunes and mirroring, over forty minutes, the band’s slip-slide into pointless parody.

It’s in that frame of mind, then, that I genuinely worried about The Seahorses, Squire’s brand new yellow-pack all-stars who last week seriously dented the singles chart on the back of their debut, ‘Love Is The Law’. Even allowing an appropriate time for the record to settle, and granting Squire’s new charges the grace to get to grips with the reality of where they are, so quickly, ‘Love Is The Law’ is a rabid pup of a record, an aimless and over-blustered guitar work-out that sounds for all the world like Ocean Colour Scene on Valium.

Lyrically it’s a mess of over-arty one-liners, scooped casually together and knitted as some sort of wilful stream of consciousness.

Had the record been the work of, say, either Gene or Morrissey, it would have been tarred at the stocks long-since. It hasn’t. Instead the largely British music press have claimed it’s arrival as some sort of miraculous third coming, generously welcoming Squire’s return as an active musician and side-stepping his inconsistent and dubious writing past.

But then both Melody Maker and New Musical Express – the guiltiest parties of all in the plot [and not for the first time, either] – desperately need John Squire’s allure and mystique right now like they needed the remarkably sellable Oasis five years ago or The Smiths’ pop optimism back in 1982 – anything, in other words, that can kick-start a new music and re-define a new set of mind values to a bored readership.

Because like it or not, bands like Three Colours Red and Symposium won’t, ultimately, sell newspapers, regardless of whose truth you believe. And right now John Squire, just like Ronan Keating, exists far more in memory and in name than he does in consequential reality. He has, like it or not, a seat of sorts in pop history and a lavish pedigree to most of those setting the pop press agendas, however rightly or wrongly. And right now, almost ten years after his last great song, his face, like Ronan Keating’s, sells, irrespective of how good or how bad his product is.

The only really telling thing being, of course, that you can’t put your arms around memories forever. And right now the clocks for both Squire and Boyzone, whatever you don’t read elsewhere, are ticking.

Game on.