The Smiths

LOST IN MUSIK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With nothing to rate them against except other bands, New Musik looked as other-worldly as they sounded on my over-worked three-in-one. And that even within the pages of Smash Hits they seemed to forever occupy the hard shoulder only added to their lustre. [We know now, of course, that New Musik didn’t just spring up like over-night. Three of them had been involved with The Nick Straker Band who, marching in tandem, enjoyed a 1980 hit single with ‘A Walk In The Park’. While Phil Towner had played the drum parts on Buggles’ imperious ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’].

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

APPENDIX

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

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MORRISSEY IN DUBLIN

 

Next week I’ll take the long walk down the quay to see Morrissey perform live for the umpteenth time. It’s more of a duty than anything else at this stage, I think :- like my annual subscription to the Resident’s Association here, none of whom I really know, whose purpose I don’t really understand and yet who, one day, may spring to my rescue when I most need them. So yes, I live in hope that, maybe once more for old time’s sake, Morrissey may discover his form in front of goal, keep his gob locked shut and pull himself up off the floor. Which isn’t beyond the contrary old street slugger, even if his recent formlines are far from convincing.

 

Indeed the last couple of shows he’s played at The Point Theatre in Dublin have captured much of his long solo career in microcosm. Uneven and disengaged affairs, by and large, with the odd dash of brilliance ;-enough to help retain an interest and to ultimately frustrate you. The impotence of Ernest, if you like.

 

The venue itself is a real problem. With its wide-open spaces, cold concrete finish and notorious sound traps, The Point is a depressing place to see any kind of half-interesting act ;- subtlety and lateral thinking are simply impossible there. And it certainly hasn’t been a happy setting for Morrissey for whom, as his audiences have become more selective and older, the place has just become too big. That the venue boasts all the charm of a working abattoir brings another layer altogether to his performances there.

 

A few of us still well up when we remember the night, back in November 1995, when Morrissey opened for David Bowie on a doomed double-bill that, in theory, was a dream ticket. But, plugging his atrocious fifth album, ‘Southpaw Grammar’ [diehards and disciples refer to it as ‘misunderstood’], he languidly ploughed through a dozen numbers,  struggling to stroke up the engine in front of a half-empty hall.

 

Morrissey despised that tour by all accounts – the idea that he might play second fiddle to anyone, even Bowie, was far less attractive in reality than it might have been on paper – and, from where we stood, just in front of the sound-desk, desperately trying to work up a thirst, that feeling was mutual. We lasted half an hour of Bowie’s set – he was promoting a misunderstood issue of his own – ‘Outside’ – and couldn’t wait to get back up into the familiar, welcoming arms of The Stag’s Head, where the porter and the loose talk took us well into the small hours. During which we cursed both of them long and hard.

 

It’s no co-incidence that Morrissey’s most magnetic solo shows in Dublin – from his very first in The National Stadium in April, 1991, when he was supported by a startlingly fresh-faced Would Bes – have gone off far from the hollow blow down in the docklands. To my mind he’s been at his most dynamic in The Ambassador [October, 2002], The Olympia Theatre [December 1999 and April, 2006] and Vicar Street [July, 2011] when, in good voice and injury free – and plugging his better material – he came alive at close quarters, making light work of the fourth wall as he ploughed head first through it.

 

 

Morrissey’s appeal – and to be fair, he can still clearly mobilise a crew and inspire a mania of sorts – has long been determined by the instinctive, direct-to-the-face connection he forges from author to reader, from stage to pit. Many of his live shows in this country, as has long been routine elsewhere, have been hijacked by those fervent loyalists who see them, not merely as concerts, but as semi-private novenas. Biding their time and scoping the geography, they’ll eventually take their chances with the security detail, mounting the stage and hoping for a quick touch of Morrissey’s relic before being escorted off.

 

However unpredictible he can be – on record, on stage, on tape, on the printed page – Morrissey is still a formidable concern when he’s fully fit. But into the veteran stage of his career now, it’s far more difficult for him to shake the routine knocks, many of which he inflicts himself. And the more he’s been unable to keep his mouth in check, the rattier and more dislikeable he’s become.

 

Reading some of his more bizarre – and dangerously loose – political views might lead long-time watchers to conclude that, perhaps, he’s just given up the ghost. Knowing that, on another level, the ghost – the media, the music industry, the marketplace – has long since given up on him.

 

It wasn’t always like that, of course. I was there on Saturday night, April 27th, 1991, on Dublin’s South Circular Road for what was, in effect, Morrissey’s first full-bodied live date as a solo performer. Pre-internet, pre-smart phone and when organised ticket swindling was far less sophisticated but no less an issue than it is now, that show sold out in less than an hour, during which he was the hottest – and most relevant – ticket in town.

 

The occasion – and it was very definitely an occasion – was every bit as raucous, chaotic, sweaty and scintillating as you might imagine, on a night when the partisan home end was swelled by a noisy travelling support, most of it male and pale and almost all of which had made it over to Leonard’s Corner on the ferry from Britain. And my sports analogies are deliberate :- much of the general hullabaloo that night had its origins on the football terraces and, from the off, the energy inside and outside the hall – one of the hearts of Irish amateur boxing – resembled that which you’d find at a feisty local lower-league derby or a decent card at York Hall, Bethnal Green.

 

As I made my way up past The Headline Bar, it was clear that Dublin 8 had been invaded ;- I’d never before seen such a range of spectacular quiffs, turn-ups, glasses, leather brogues and floral tributes. A terrific piece here documents in no little detail the fevered hoopla that surrounded that show, before and especially during it.

 

Morrissey has long been a moody and crabby tourist and both Johnny Marr’s biography, ‘Set The Boy Free’ and Johnny Rogan’s ‘The Severed Alliance’ paint unattractive, odd-ball portraits from both inside and outside of The Smiths camp of a performer prone to indecision, erratic behaviour, reckless decision making and routine hissy-fitting. And yet,  certainly at the beginning of his solo career, he seemed energised and re-focused – rested and finally in complete control, perhaps ? – and his good humour was reflected in many of his earliest live shows, some of which I saw at home and in Britain and most of which were electric.

 

Both the full-bodied quiffs – especially Morrissey’s own – and the floral tributes are long diminished now :- and much of the singer’s charm has wilted with them. He was in his creative pomp when his Trumper’s-tended wedge had the cut of an elaborate French stick but, like the rest of us, he’s struggled clearly for any real kind of elevation this last while. And I know this because I’ve seen that head close-up :- several years back I found myself sitting immediately behind Morrissey on a delayed British Airlines flight to London, days after he’d performed in Dublin on the ‘World Peace Is None Of Your Business’ tour. And no, I didn’t reach out over the cold leather seats to touch it, much and all as I was sorely tempted to.

 

But he carries on regardless.

 

And he’s back in Dublin next week to plug his most recent album, ‘Low In High School’ which, like much of his solo material, is not without it’s moments – the first four cuts and the imperious, multiple phase ‘I Bury The Living’ take the laurels – although its nowhere near his best and most cohesive work. Which, for the sake of reference, and in order of appearance, I mark as ‘Your Arsenal’ [1992], ‘Vauxhall And I’ [1994], ‘You Are The Quarry’ [2004] and ‘Ringleader Of The Tormentors’ [2006]. And like another increasingly frequent visitor to The Point Theatre, U2 – whose audiences [customers ?] have also become far more selective – there’s trouble afoot in the writing room.

 

 

Morrissey’s sound now mirrors his own physical shape and the depth of tone in his voice :- fuller, rich and scarcely recognisable from the nervy tenor he cut in 1983, when pitching up in tune was frequently beyond him. But far too often that production bulk just sounds like well-intentioned plodding around crudely-formed riff-making. Awash with keyboards and familiar lyrical tropes, too much of ‘Low in High School’ just sounds tired and incomplete, the ambitious ‘I Bury The Living’ the exception. In the anti-war lyrical tradition of Donovan’s ‘Universal Soldier’, it bedrocks the record in the middle-order and, in length and in spirit, resembles previous sinewy anchor tenants like ‘Life Is A Pigsty’ [from ‘Ringleaders’], ‘Its Not Your Birthday Anymore’ [from ‘Years of Refusal’] and ‘The Teachers Are Afraid of The Pupils’ [from ‘Southpaw Grammar’]. All of whom stretch out, over time, beyond the obvious.

 

With the co-writing credits now shared more loosely around various members of his backing band, cohesion is an issue too and, again like U2 over the last decade, much of ‘High School’ just sounds forced and way less than the sum of it’s parts.

 

Indeed Morrissey’s best and most lucid record since ‘Ringleader’ is a compilation of odds, sods, the odd cover and assembled rarities released in 2009 – and honking of contractual obligation – as ‘Swords’. Eighteen cuts long, it captures some of his lesser known tracks recorded over the previous decade, ‘Ganglord’, ‘Teenage Dad On His Estate’, ‘Munich Air Disaster, 1958’, ‘Children In Pieces’, ‘Friday Mourning’ and ‘Because Of My Poor Education’ among them, as well as a meaty live take on Bowie’s ‘Drive-In Saturday’. And it has the not inconsiderable hand of Alain Whyte all over it.

 

 

Whyte might not be the most flamboyant and creative writer in recent music history but he’s certainly been Morrissey’s most ambitious and consequential partner since Johnny Marr. His songs buttressed the spine of every one of those solo albums from ‘Your Arsenal’ to ‘Ringleader Of The Tormentors’ and he was a constant in Morrissey’s live retinue from 1991 until 2004. And, as with many of those who’ve worked so intrinsically inside the singer’s inner circle, he left the set-up under a cloud – how else ? – and was roundly disparaged, like a myriad of others, in the singer’s 2014 book, ‘Autobiography’.

 

While many of Whyte’s songs are as one-dimensional as the mercurial League Of Ireland wing wizard returned from England’s lower leagues, his credits – ‘Hold Onto Your Friends’, ‘Sunny’, First Of The Gang To Die’, ‘Life Is A Pigsty’, ‘I’ll Never Be Anybody’s Hero Now’, ‘Its Not Your Birthday Anymore’, ‘Certain People I Know’ and a myriad of others – tell their own story. And he may, perhaps, have been far more central to Morrissey’s machine than the singer might otherwise concede

 

A considerable amount of water, record company spats, quality b-sides, bass-players and unseemly aggro have passed beneath the bridges in the many years since I first fell under Morrissey’s spell – mano a boyo – feet away from the stage at The Savoy in Cork in 1984. And in that time, I suspect I’ve become one of those hopelessly forlorn suburban cases, just keeping on keeping on, head down, that so dominate many of his songs. The sickly boyfriend who went down on one knee because, well, he only had one knee. And, when I fetch up next week in The Point, I’ll meet many more just like me. And worse.

 

Morrissey has consistently entertained me, appalled me, disgusted me, humoured me and, for many years, just obsessed me ;- for ages he was a conversation starter and a friendship former. We’ve been thirty-five years together now and, like many other couples who first got it on in secondary school, should probably have called it quits for good years ago. With the thrill far more irregular and the unquestioning lustre long worn, we’re doing it more for the kids than for ourselves at this stage. That and the promise, unlikely as it might be, of the occasional ride for old time’s sake knowing that, back in the day, when we were good we were, if not unstoppable, at least moderately compatible.

 

The odd time I hear the frankly preposterous notion that The Smiths were a) over-rated and b) not half as influential as history records them. This sort of half-baked pub argument is seen off quickly ;- the band was together for five years during which they were prolific, consistently challenging and when they profoundly turned popular music on its head. And there was a time too, difficult as it might be to believe now, when Morrissey, the solo artist, was just as important, provocative and relevant.

 

A number of years ago, a friend sneaked me a copy of Morrissey’s rider from 2009’s ‘Years of Refusal’ tour and, to be fair, it certainly lived up to, and on every one of it’s 28 pages greatly exceeded, everything I expected of the old tart – of Irish blood, English heart – in respect of his general demands and back-stage considerations. From a man who name-checks The Christian Brothers in one of his songs, how could it have been any other way ?

 

Apart entirely from the standard guff about clean towels, chilled water, toilets and executive travel to and from venues, I was especially taken by some of Morrissey’s demands for his own dressing room. And particularly his requests for Dubliner brand ‘organic mature vegetarian cheddar cheese’ and ‘Real Irish Kerrygold salted butter.

 

My father turned 80 last November. With a considerable quiff of his own that I can only but marvel at, he uses a basic mobile telephone that he never answers but on which he texts me irregularly. Usually using a stream of consciousness style, with no capital letters or punctuation, he’ll often prompt me about my mother’s birthday, various hospital appointments and the inadequacies of the Cork hurling teams.

 

Late one Friday night last October, he sent me the following message :- ‘mam says your friend Morrissey is on graham norton’. And I know that I will never, ever receive such a casually perceptive, subversive and pointed text again as long as I live.

 

Keeping it in the family, that’s us.

 

 

TALES OF THE TAPE

 

 

The delicate art of just being there can be tricky enough to manage at the best of times, especially to those of us long gone from the streets that raised us, in exile. But just because we’re out of sight, keeping our eyes on the ball and one foot ahead of the other, doesn’t mean we think any less of those we’ve left behind. Distance, indeed, will often bring a far greater intensity and perspective to any relationship. And whenever I return home now – for family occasions, celebrations, at times of loss and grief or just, simply, to catch up with my parents and siblings and attempt to stay in touch – I’m dealing increasingly with a far more complicated backdrop :- the slow-dance with old ghosts.

 

My mother must have documented the lot. And anytime I’m home now, she’ll produce a series of photographs or a scrap-book or an old three-hour VHS tape, beaten and war-torn, its struggling body wrapped in vandalised cardboard casing and bearing random television programme titles from the last century scrawled in biro on it’s spine. She must have a bottomless treasury of old clippings, by-lines through the decades, a cache of old videotape, old press releases, band publicity photographs and under-age match reports. And its probably just as well :- as someone who struggles to remember what I did last month, the late 1980s are a daunting challenge.

 

She built up that store over decades knowing that the day would eventually come when, quietly and without fanfare, we’d be actively looking to pass the torch on. That there’d ultimately be an hour when what were once just fleeting snapshots in time would assume much more significance, as happens now with every trip home, every milestone reached, birthday celebrated, every year chalked down. And the more we’ve lost over-board along the way – mighty uncles, mighty aunts, a barely born niece, grand-parents, friends, enemies, relationships and time – the more that personal archive takes on more stature. And the more we’re thankful for the diligence and the soft hands of the record keeper.

 

My own children, no moreso than anyone elses, can’t believe that we ever lived like we did all the way back in the 1980s. That we ever dressed like we did or that we ever communicated to one another in a real world and not in an unreal, virtual one. Or that we ever played music directly from vinyl :- it’s a concept that, to those growing up at a time when one of the first motor instincts in any young child now can often be to try and swipe at a television screen with a finger, is just beyond them.

 

So where does one even start when it comes to the not insignificant matter of the Cassette Tape which, I’d contend, has always been the national music format of choice and one to which the country has been instinctively drawn for decades and across all aspects of society, from the most curious of collectors on the margins to the religious crackpots out there beyond the beyond.

 

I honestly thought we’d seen the last of the cassette which, during the 1980s and 1990s, was a vital tool in our armoury and one that we deployed in many different guises. But despite thirty years on death row, the format lingers on and, if recent trends continue to hold, may even be in line for a surprise pardon.

 

My first encounter with the cassette was up in my grandmother’s house in Farranree. She had a healthy supply of country and Irish compilation tapes stored alongside her favourite religious recordings and, when we’d swing by there on Sunday mornings, I’d often wade through her stash in the forlorn hope of locating something a bit more obtuse. In behind the work, perhaps, of Jimmy Shand, Isla Grant and Dónal Ring, a local accordion-playing ceilí band leader from out the road in Blarney who briefly – ‘featuring Paddy Carey’ – threatened a national chart breakthrough with ‘The Bold Christy Ring’ [‘his hurling’s most glorious, he’s always victorious, he’s Cork’s darling hurler, the bold Christy Ring’].

 

And although, against the honk of turnip on the boil outside in the small kitchen, this calibre of stuff was enough to scar you on sight, there was something unusually fetching about the cassette format itself. Like many of my favourite bands during this time, tapes were efficient, part magnetic, barely held together and, with the right amount of poking
with a pencil, would unravel in an instant.

 

I was reminded of the peculiar allure of the cassette recently when, during an unscheduled raid on Music Zone, a small, un-sung record shop in Douglas Shopping Centre in Cork, I saw that a couple of new releases – Morrissey’s ‘Low In High School’ among them – were also available on tape. And at a considerably lower price-point too. But although I rarely, if ever, bought any new music on cassette, tape was actually where the real business of my youth was done, the currency of the oik and the everyday language of the indie ghetto. Like fanzines, good brogues and satchels, tape separated the anoraks from the day-trippers and all of those who were simply passing through. Demo tapes, pre-release tapes, compilation tapes and crudely-recorded sessions, taped from the radio, were all part of the vernacular of the day, essential companions to any aspiring collection – and collector – of wax.

 

Much has been made in long magazine features, contemporary novels and even screenplays, of the impact and influence of ‘the mix-tape’, the preferred method of communication during the 1980s for indie snobs, show-offs, aspiring [usually perspiring] musos, trainspotters and enthusiasts. Many of whom struggled to finish their sentences whenever regular conversations veered off course and into areas that didn’t involve Morrissey and Robert Smith. And who almost always tended to be single and pitied.

 

Usually featuring a carefully curated selection of songs by left-field bands and artists and, more often than not, recorded crudely from vinyl originals to cassette via the domestic three-in-one, the mix tape used music in lieu of common discourse, sending out subtle messages, flirty hints, signals and political and personal suggestions. Ultimately, though, the mix tape was often just an awkward cri de coeur.

 

Showing scant regard for the baleful suggestions carried inside many international vinyl releases warning that home taping was illegal and, worse again – over an apocalyptic crossbones logo – that the practice was killing music, the home-grown compilation cassette worked on the same basic principle as the engagement ring. One only ever gave or received a mix tape after a period of courtship, often short and intensive, during which both sides had established common ground – a shared affection for The Cure, R.E.M, The Wedding Present and The Fall, usually – before moving on together, for better, worse and usually poorer, to the more challenging aspects of the human condition. Where the likes of The Stooges, vintage Bowie and The Velvet Underground were located.

 

Pickled with runes, tunes and indie metaphors, a standard mix-tape designed to make an immediate impression might have opened with ‘Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me’ by The Smiths before gliding softly onto R.E.M.’s ‘Pretty Persuasion’, something lateral by The Beatles, Depeche Mode’s ‘See You’, The Cure’s ‘Just Like Heaven’, ‘Always The Quiet One’ by The Wedding Present, an assortment of frankly unlistenable c86 codology [The Pastels, Eyeless in Gaza and Gene Loves Jezebel] before closing out with a plaintive question, disguised as an end-of-show statement :- Buzzcocks ‘What Do I Get ?’.

 

 

 

I made numerous such cassettes over the years, for men, for women, for folk I knew well and folk I hardly knew at all. And each one of them recklessly surfed the lines between what I considered to be studied cool, the vagaries of random personal selection and absolute pretentiousness. ‘Frou Frou Foxes In Midsummer Fire’ by The Cocteau Twins and something more obtuse than usual by Einstürzende Neubauten were regular gold-plated cuts in this respect, even if what was often gained on the roundabout of hip was lost quickly on the swing of the practical reality. Because it was virtually impossible to fit longer titles and band-names onto the in-lay cards inside the cassette boxes without making an artless mess, which tended to defeat the purpose.

 

Bound by an enduring sense that, ultimately, I just knew better, I poured my heart and soul – and pints of Tippex – into those compilations, every single one of them constructed with the kind of care I used decades later when we took our first-born daughter home from hospital for the first time. Songs were inserted carefully into particular order, lovingly and pointedly selected and wrapped with real intent. And of course most of them were assembled while I could and should have had my head buried in text books instead. Indeed, had the fine art of ‘The Mix Tape’ been a core honours subject on The Leaving Certificate, I’d have rolled into U.C.C. on a scholarship to Electrical Engineering and featured on the main evening news as an over-achieving academic freak-show instead of just simply just stumbling up the main avenue into college looking like a failed lab experiment. But we were happy, apparently.

 

I received – and devoured – many mix tapes over the years too. The best and easily most influential of which was a compilation from a fellow traveller I met on a course on youth leadership, no less, in Newbridge in County Kildare during the early 1980s. Slightly older and also called Colm, he was a student of philosophy and theology at university in Northern Ireland and we bonded instantly. Or as quickly as it emerged we were fans of the same sort of music and, because he had a few years on me he was able to pull from a far deeper well of experience and reference, which he shared freely. This, to me, was a
definitive form of youth leadership.

 

We spent many hours on that course locked in intensive discussion about the importance of sharp lyrics and music with an edge and, during our last night on the campus, as everyone was preparing to pack up and leave, he gave a formidable, unscripted homily to the entire group about the power of friendship, signing off with a verse of Bob Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’. ‘May you always be courageous, stand up right and be strong. And may you stay forever young’. And after he’d finished, I felt like breaking out through the wall and running the journey back to Cork.

 

Within days of getting back home, an absurdly wide-ranging, home-produced cassette arrived for me. More or less synopsising, through an almighty breadth of styles and sounds, the conversations we’d had the previous week, it was a perfect diadem. In-set among which were lateral cuts from The Fall, Alain Stivell, Bob Dylan, Throbbing Gristle, Neil Young and Holger Czukay and, over the course of that bulging sixty minute, two-sided cassette, I saw the light and the light was good. Colm had shown me, basically, how to kill my darlings and set my snobbery to one side. Because it was obvious, from the expanse of new music at my elbow, that quality music could reside anywhere and everywhere and that there was real magic in diversity. And of course, as these things tend to go, that was the last I ever heard from him.

 

Morty McCarthy – the drummer, advocate and philosopher – was another enthusiastic tape trader around Cork and I’ve written previously about how, because of his energy, various peccadillos and his ear for a tune, I grew and developed a lifelong friendship with The Frank And Walters. He’d compile regular guitar-led manifestos onto tape and distribute them freely around his peer group, steadfast in his view that indie-pop would one day save civilisation from itself. God knows where he sourced some of the stuff that turned up on those tapes and yet, to this day, I’m thankful for the introduction he brokered between McCarthy [the politically-charged, no-frills, straight-in, no kissing indie janglers who, sadly, bore no direct family relation to him] and myself. That band’s three albums – ‘I Am A Wallet’, ‘The Enraged Will Inherit The Earth’ and ‘Banking, Violence And The Inner Life Today’ – are easily among my favourite records of all time and I can trace this life-long affair all the way back to a poorly-recorded, c60 cassette tape traded
under streetlight.

 

Morty dealt openly too in one of the more extreme aspects of the format – the demo tape – and I don’t think he was never more giddy than when some young local shower would emerge, direct from the eight-track cauldron at Elm Tree Studios on The Mardyke, with their three-song, two-chord calling card burning holes in their jeans, ready to take on all comers. I pored over hundreds of demo tapes down the years, often at Morty’s prompting, and spent many miserable hours – that I won’t ever get back – chasing fool’s gold.

 

 

 

But the rare glint of magic through the gap, and that instinctive sense that something rare was bubbling beneath the crude over-lay, always had me coming back. I can remember still, of course, the whiff of cordite that popped the air around me when I first played the uncouth, unpolished and unsteady studio demos from the likes of The Franks, The Cranberries, Toasted Heretic and Whipping Boy. As Liam McMahon, who managed a teenage Roy Keane at Cobh Ramblers asked Dave Hannigan in our 1997 television documentary, ‘Have Boots, Will Travel’ ;- ‘What price do you put on potential ?’.

 

Easily the most jaw-dropping demo I can ever remember was the first tape sent to Setanta Records by Neil Hannon after he’d jettisoned his band and his shoe-gazing aspirations and retreated back to Enniskillen to re-invent himself as a solo performer.

 

Coarsely committed to tape using a basic four-track, Tascam machine and recorded in a shed behind his family home, that cassette featured, in skeletal form, the guts of what subsequently became The Divine Comedy’s ‘Liberation’ album. And still, even as a series of callow sketches and rough outlines, it just dripped with raw majesty :- it was for this kind of unexpected sorcery that I could excuse the bulk of what had gone before me and to which I had voluntarily subjected myself.

 

 

 

As an emerging and already respected label making waves and noise while our competitors were pulling in cash, Setanta received a regular barrage of cassettes from aspiring, hopeful acts, many of them Irish and most of which were plainly unlistenable. But because necessity is the mother of invention and because we were fervent re-cyclers, we found plenty of use for most of them :- in the spirit of punk rock and doing it for ourselves, we’d record over them with some of our own forthcoming material and re-distribute them as samplers to the loyal band of admirers on our mailing lists.

 

Keith Cullen, Setanta’s founder and chief strategist, never fully grasped the popularity of the cassette form back in Ireland and would mention this whenever he was arguing that the market there was irrelevant. Which was often. Long after tape had become a dead format in Britain – who remembers Minidiscs ? – Setanta would often have no other choice but to produce a special run of cassettes, at significant cost and with no little bother, whenever we released anything by A House, for instance.

 

One of the biggest regrets I have about many of my own relationships – with friends, girlfriends, colleagues, passing acquaintances – is the amount of quality music I lost or squandered along the way in the hope, like Morty all of those years previously, of maybe setting broader society on the right path. I loaned The Trashcan Sinatras’ ‘A Happy Pocket’ to so many different people over the years that I’ve had to replenish my own stock at least ten times and yet, up to recently, didn’t actually have a physical copy I could call my own. A sad state of affairs made sadder by the knowledge that, irrespective of how truly magnificent that record is, it served as either a coaster or a serving tray in some squalid Dublin flat long after I’d been given my marching orders or decided to up sticks because of irreconcilable music differences.

 

The moral being, I suppose, that while it’s never too late to repent, some souls just aren’t worth saving.

 

To accompany this piece there is a specially created Mix Tape… 

 

 

THE SMITHS IN CORK [AND DUBLIN…]

Morrissey Hayfield Manor

Denis and Morrissey at Hayfield Manor

 

This, our latest guest post came about on the back of a Twitter exchange after Colm’s most recent post, The Smiths in Cork, 1984  That exchange included contributions from Denis Carroll, a massive fan of The Smiths and Morrissey, who posted some great pictures and told a great story in the form of a number of tweets.

We asked him if he’d like to expand on his tweets and tell the story in long form. He did. And here is the result. Thanks Denis!

My name is Denis Carroll, I am aged 55 and from Cork. I got into music in the early 70s, my favourites being T. Rex, Marc Bolan and David Bowie. I was obsessed with T. Rex and Marc Bolan, buying all their records and any magazines within which they featured.

In late 1983, after seeing The Smiths on Top of the Pops, I became a massive fan of the band, and in particular Morrissey. The Smiths have become the band of my life! I have seen The Smiths live twelve times and Morrissey over 100 times across the world.

I first saw The Smiths live in May 1984 in the SFX Concert Hall, Dublin and two days later at The Savoy Theatre, Cork (see ticket – Image 1 – not mine!). Later that year, in November 1984, I saw The Smiths live again at The Savoy Theatre, Corkand this is where I had my first encounter with Morrissey. I was working in a night-club called CoCos, which was attached to The Victoria Hotel, Cork, in which the band were staying (see room layout – Image 2)

That Sunday afternoon [18th November], I went into the hotel with the first two albums – ‘The Smiths’ and ‘Hatful of Hollow’ – under my arm, hoping for them both to be signed. I waited for an hour or so while listening to the chants of 40/50 Smiths fans outside the main entrance. Word got to the manager of the hotel that the band did not want to enter the hotel through the main entrance and asked was there another entrance that could be used? The manager informed them that yes, there was a back entrance on the street behind the hotel and instructed them where to go. He also informed them that someone would be there to meet them to bring them through the hotel…..and that someone was me!

I arrived at the back entrance to find the band and one or two other people waiting to be left in. I introduced myself to all four members of The Smiths and en route to their rooms, chatted with them about the two albums and that night’s concert. They signed the first two albums for me, in full (Image 3).

That night’s concert was one of the best Smiths shows I saw, only slightly marred by some idiot spitting at Morrissey while on stage. After the show finished I went back to the hotel, where I met with all four Smiths members and Morrissey, who was really upset by the spitting incident. The band all signed the ‘Hatful of Hollow’ promo poster for me (Image 4). Morrissey proceeded to go to bed while the rest of the band went on to party in the nightclub of the hotel.

My next encounter with Morrissey was on the afternoon of The Smiths’ final Dublin show in the National Stadium on 10th February, 1986. While walking along Grafton Street, my three friends and I bumped into Morrissey and one other person. Morrissey stopped to talk to all four of us for about 10/15 minutes about that night’s Dublin show and mentioned that they were eager to have a Cork show also but could not secure a venue for that particular tour. Morrissey asked us if we were going to that night’s show in the National Stadium and of course we told him ‘yes’, that three of us had tickets but that we were short one ticket for my, friend Tony.

We then said our goodbyes. When we got to the show that night Tony went to the box office counter only to be told Morrissey had put his name on the guest list and was escorted to a great side-of-stage seat, while the rest of us proceeded back to the seated area in the main auditorium.

My final encounter with Morrissey was on 27th July, 2011 in the Hayfield Manor hotel in Cork city. just before his show that night in The Savoy Theatre. I hung around the reception area of the hotel for a number of hours that afternoon in the hope of meeting Morrissey ;- when finally he appeared, he was being escorted to his waiting car to take him to the concert venue. As he was just about to sit into his car, I approached him for an autograph and picture; he got back out of the car and signed a number of CDs and also posed for some pictures with me (Images – top of post).

I spoke to him about that night’s show in the Savoy and the two Vicar Street [Dublin] shows that I was also attending later in the week. He was extremely polite and friendly and gave me a grand wave from the back seat of his Mercedes as he sped off to the show.

 

Smiths Savoy

Image 1

 

 

Smiths Hotel Room

Image 2

 

Smiths and Hatful of Hollow

Image 3 – Signed Albums

 

Hatful of Hollow poster

Image 4

 

Smiths Tour Dates

Image 5

 

 

Smiths MCD

Image 6

 

 

Morrissey signed pic frame

Image 7

 

 

 

U2 :– WELCOME TO THE CABARET

 

The announcements in early January that U2 were parking the release of an intended album and were instead loading their bases to tour ‘The Joshua Tree’ on the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of it’s issue, won’t have taken regular watchers of the veteran band by surprise. ‘Songs Of Experience’ had initially been touted as a quick-fire follow-up and companion piece to 2014’s ‘Songs Of Innocence’, even if more specific detail wasn’t forthcoming, a tack favoured by a band that, even now, likes to play with a closed hand. ‘Innocence’ was recorded in a  myriad of locations by multiple producers and a team of engineers and sounds like it was a real struggle to complete. And so it’s easy to see why the band has re-ordered it’s to-do list ;- with a big birthday  looming, the associated commercial opportunities are simply too  attractive to ignore. The line between band and brand is indeed a fine  one and U2 have played fast and loose with it for years.

 

The band has always been as pragmatic as it’s been notoriously driven and competitive, especially in the corporate field. Writing about the ticketing mechanism used for the band’s date in Dublin’s Croke Park next July for instance, Jim Carroll has pointed out in his excellent Irish  Times blog, ‘On The Record’ how ‘the same corporate entity is  promoting the U2 [Joshua Tree] tour, managing the band, flogging the tickets and operating one of the biggest secondary ticket markets’.

 

On the day of the announcement of the forthcoming tour, Adam Clayton, the band’s bass player, told Ryan Tubridy on RTÉ Radio One that  ‘desperate times’ motivated the band to re-visit ‘The Joshua Tree’ thirty years on. But while many believed he was referring to Donald Trump’s election to the office of American President and the growing sense of global anxiety that’s followed it, he could just as easily have been referencing U2’s creative and critical nose-dive, which started in earnest over ten years ago and which shows no sign of abating. Simply  put, U2 have ‘the drabs’ and have been re-cycling bitty old riffs and scraps of familiar lyrical conceits for ages.    

 

It’s not the first time that U2 has shelved a record, of course. The early sessions for what eventually became the band’s 2009 album, ‘No Line On The Horizon’ were started three years beforehand with Rick Rubin, one of the co-founders of the Def Jam label and unquestionably one of  the most important producers in the history of contemporary popular  music. The band’s previous album, ‘How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb’, was an uncomplicated, mildly diverting but ultimately familiar sounding U2 record. And so the prospect of a creative marriage with Rubin on it’s follow-up suggested, fleetingly as it transpired, the sort of possibilities realised a decade previously on the two most lateral of all of U2’s albums, ‘Zooropa’ and ‘Pop’, when the band cut loose while under the influence of producers Flood and Howie B. And paid dearly for the privilege at the hands of critics, who largely panned them, and fans,who rejected them.

  

But although Rubin’s ‘Beach’ sessions sound far more conventional than one might have expected, the marriage was dissolved quickly and the band returned instead to the more familiar arms of it’s long-time squad of Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Steve Lillywhite, aided by a large support cast of assistants and engineers. Rubin clearly wasn’t taken by, or had the patience for, the band’s preferred way of working ;- riff it out in studio and let’s see what gives. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, The Edge claimed that ‘it’s in the process of recording that we really do our writing’. And, with reference to the abandoned Rubin sessions added :- ‘we’d almost have to make a record with Brian [Eno] and Daniel [Lanois] first, then go and re-record it with Rick Rubin’. Even to those of us who’d grown accustomed to U2 at half-throttle, this was a pretty exceptional reveal.

 

Steve Lillywhite had first seen the band work this way during the studio sessions for it’s second album, 1981’s ‘October’. He’d already produced U2’s debut, ‘Boy’, in the relatively modest Windmill Lane facility in Dublin city and was back again behind the desk when an under-prepared band struggled to bring a follow-up record together on the studio floor. U2 have never traded as the most prolific of writers and, having flogged the best of their early material on 1980’s ‘Boy’, found themselves under real pressure to deliver a second album on schedule. But despite helping the band to make an initial splash in Britain, ‘October’ was really no more than a collection of loose ideas and half-imagined words stitched together in studio, a point made by Lillywhite some years back during an interview with the www.atu2.com website. ‘They pretty much exhausted all of their songs on ‘Boy’’, he said. ‘They were touring ‘Boy’ and they used to play ‘I Will Follow’ twice because they didn’t have enough songs. So when it came to doing ‘October’, they didn’t really have very long to prepare it’. And it shows :- the title track is Spinal Tap’s ‘Lick My Lovepump’, ‘I Threw A Brick Through A Window’ is a meandering jam, ‘Scarlet’ is random riffing and so on and so forth.

 

Producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois go back with U2 to 1984’s ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ when, during a critical cross-over period in the band’s career, they succeeded in pushing them out of what had already become comfortable territory. They also pushed U2 out into the sticks :- the record was laid down, for the most part in the vast, ornate ballroom at Slane Castle in County Meath, and the layers of production and additional sound design on ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ reflect the extent of the surroundings in which slabs of it was conceived. Much of it brought to the table by Eno, in particular.

 

 

Barry Devlin’s documentary film, ‘The Making Of The Unforgettable Fire’ is an excellent portrait of a starry-eyed young band at work, especially revealing in how, as early as 1983/84, U2 were approaching the studio recording process and regarding the role of the producer. After three albums and the broader cut-through achieved by ‘War’, which was also produced by Steve Lillywhite, the band had of course earned the right to take a looser, more unhindered approach to studio work. But Brian Eno’s contribution to ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ is vast, none moreso than on ‘Pride’, the record’s signature piece, which he elevates – as seen in Devlin’s film – – from a series of sinewy riffs into something far more defined and magical. ‘The Making Of The Unforgettable Fire’ captures Eno variously as producer, mentor, writer, teacher and guru :- if Devlin were to document U2 at such close quarters today, what – and who – might he find inside the studio walls ?

 

In Joshua Klein’s 2009 Pitchfork interview with Eno, filed to mark the 25th anniversary of the release of ‘The Unforgettable Fire’, the producer explained that the band wanted him on that album because they wanted ‘to be changed unrecognisably’. And by effecting that change, Eno and Lanois became fundamental to the scale and extent of U2’s global breakthrough and, consequently, their entire raison d’etre. So much so that by the time the two producers had completed their work on ‘No Line On The Horizon’, they were also finally credited as co-writers and, to all intents, the fifth and sixth members of the group. If, as The Edge had previously explained, it was in the process of recording that the band did it’s writing, then what was it exactly that U2 brought to the studio with them at the start of that project ? Because ‘Horizon’, like ‘Songs Of Innocence’,  sounds exactly like a record painted by numbers and laid down by a committee.

 

U2 wouldn’t be the first, and certainly won’t be the last of the great bands to work in such a manner. Johnny Rogan reveals in ‘Morrissey And Marr : The Severed Alliance’, that much of The Smiths’ finest material came together very quickly during studio sessions, often from half-raw riffs that were vigorously jammed out on the fly. Indeed the band’s long-time producer, Stephen Street, maintains that during the recording of the group’s final album,‘Strangeways, Here We Come’, his input into the string arrangement on ‘Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me’ was such that he could have been given a writing credit.

 

Although The Smiths were only ever together for barely five years, their career – like much of the early part of U2’s – was characterised by a relentless and often reckless touring-recording-touring schedule. ‘Strangeways’, for instance, was recorded off of the back of a long American tour and many of the songs that made it onto that album were seriously under-cooked before the formal sessions began. Its been decades since U2 have had those kind of scheduling problems and time pressures but, from 2000 onwards, they’ve been re-mining the same seam for ever-decreasing returns. And the more that basic songwriting has become an issue, the more desperate – and ultimately cluttered – their sound has become in search of those familiar, big statement pieces.

 

In that same http://www.atu2.com interview, Steve Lillywhite suggests that the band has consistently asked him back because he brings clarity to what they do. But by their own standards, U2’s recorded output has lacked real clarity and any sort of positive form line since ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’, their last truly full-bodied album. And the Cinemascope cut of ‘The Joshua Tree’ that The Edge referred to recently in Rolling Stone magazine is far removed from the wedding video finish of the band’s last three elpees. With U2 cut adrift in the roaring forties, the suite of songs on ‘The Joshua Tree’, must pretty much haunt them now.

 

The more flaccid and middling U2’s records have become, the bigger and more complicated their accompanying live shows have been ;- spectacle and scale plastering over the obvious. To that end, the ‘Songs Of Innocence’ tour was essentially ‘U2 : The Musical’, a flabby and over- rated theatre show that only really kicked into gear up the final straight when the band dipped into it’s back-catalogue to just about salvage it from the ordinary. And ‘The Joshua Tree’ cabaret is an obvious extension of that broader theme, U2 celebrating themselves and their achievements – some of which are still scarcely believable – under-pinned by the shake and roll of some of their greatest hits.

 

The ‘Innocence’ tour in Dublin was the first time that the emotional under-lay that usually accompanies their Irish shows wasn’t enough to fully hold the weight of the band’s ambition. Bono’s voice, previously the fulcrum around which every single great U2 moment has resounded, sounded weary and weak, hindered by the lethargic set-list. And from my seat in the stalls, I found it difficult to buy into the giddy hoopla that surrounded the record’s lyrics ;- in the absence of imposing signature tunes, the autobiographical aspect of the words had attracted much of the critical focus beforehand. But Bono has long dealt in the confessional, themes of childhood, aspects of family life, parenting, adolescence and loss. And far more convincingly so on U2’s earliest records too. By comparison, the likes of ‘Iris’, ‘The Miracle of Joey Ramone’ and ‘Cedarwood Road’ just sound as hollow and incomplete as the most featherweight material on ‘October’, as if they’d been beaten into shape to accompany an elaborate set and lighting design.

 

A point that was also made over five years previously by the Dublin writer and journalist Michael Ross, who has observed the band at close quarters since it’s inception and has written with terrific insight on U2 over many years. And never more so than in a long feature for The Sunday Times in 2009 following the release of ‘No Line On The Horizon’- and the opulent live tour that accompanied it – that forensically deconstructed the band’s creative decline using thirty years of personal testimony and first-hand experience to scaffold his thesis. That prescient piece at atU2.Com. is essential for anyone with even a passing interest in the complicated and compelling history of Ireland’s most successful ever rock band, and it was foremost in my mind as I sat watching on in The Point.

 

I made the mistake of articulating my views on the ‘Innocence’ tour to my companion that night in November, 2015 ;- my wife. Devoted, loyal and steadfast, I pale into insignificance when she turns her focus onto the small matter of U2, with whom she’s been smitten for the guts of thirty years, for better and, this last while, for worse. And I’m still paying the price for my loose tongue. She’ll be there once again come July and, like most other long-standing U2 fans, will travel in good faith, delighted to have stayed the course with them, still fearless in devotion. And why not ?

 

Croke Park itself – and the organisation to which it belongs, The Gaelic Athletic Association – has changed beyond recognition in the thirty years since she first saw U2 anoint the holy ground to the strains of ‘The Joshua Tree’. The band itself may be caught in a long-term creative torpor but remain one of the most fascinating, infuriating, driven and ambitious acts in the history of popular music. Like the hurlers of Cork, who’ve long lapsed into listlessness, they have tradition and history on their side, even if that’s been eroded slowly over time. And yet, as we’ve seen over the years, they’re at their most lethal and dangerous when they’ve been counted out.

 

But for now that count continues, steady and backwards.