The Thrills

THE THRILLS

To my mind, far too much contemporary music writing – and indeed arts coverage in general – has become identity politics by another name. Show me your Amazon, Spotify and Twitter history and I’ll tell you who you are, what you’re thinking and who I think you should be, basically.

Maybe it’s always been thus and the growth of the internet has just made it easier to join the dots and to compartmentalise ? Either way, the politics of identity – and the politics of class, arguably the last taboo for journalism – are central to any faithful telling of the story of The Thrills, the South Dublin pop band who, for five years, cut a considerable dash and made a real indent into the mainstream. But if their rise was meteoric – and notwithstanding their earlier incarnations and a rudderless spell spent hacking around the local circuit, I still contend that it was – then their implosion was just as spectacular.

The Thrills have a terrific yarn to tell and, who knows ?, they may opt to tell it someday. In the meantime, we’re left with three albums on a major label, decent commercial headway and a series of paper-thin stereotypes and crudely formed generalisations for our troubles.

The short history of the band can be read, on one level, as the parable of the Irish state between 2002 and 2008. The band embodied, especially on their carefree debut album, ‘So Much For The City’, much of the mood of the country during it’s Celtic Tiger period, those years of sustained, unprecedented growth and, for many, mindless and reckless optimism and abandon. And during which Ireland, a state then not yet one hundred years old, encountered widespread economic prosperity for the first time in its short life. Much of which, as we sadly know now, was constructed, with little oversight or self-regulation, by a compliant banking system – on sand and with pyrite-contaminated concrete. The consequences of that national giddiness are still being severely felt all over Ireland, ten years after the inevitable crash that provided the sting in the tiger’s tail.

The Thrills – good-looking, aspirational, young, ambitious and naïve – epitomised much of the pimped-up confidence of the Tiger years. And, for as long as they were active on a major label, provided a welcome antidote to many of the more monochrome Dublin outfits who’d gone before them.

The Blades, for instance, had rooted many of their songs in the long-running social soap opera of Dublin’s south inner-city during the late 1970s and early 1980s. In their slipstream, A House, from West Dublin, were determined by a cynicism rarely seen previously in Irish popular music and hardly seen again since. While across on the Northside, The Brilliant Trees, Damien Dempsey and Aslan were minding their manors and giving authentic voices to the many they encountered who were without.

And all of these outfits shared sharp, finely-tuned pop sensibilities, as well as a decent command of the short form. With which they brought varying degrees of insight and pain from a markedly different world located a matter of post-codes away from the capital’s main drags. So much for the city, indeed.

The Thrills, on the other hand, did what their name suggested ;- they were the urgent, hormone-fused sound of young graduates on a prolonged frat party a long way from home. For better and for worse – and there are many who scored them way down for it – there isn’t a hint of malice in anything they’ve ever committed to tape.

Dublin bands at a particular level have traditionally been photographed either on local beaches, against grainy, industrial back-drops or inside their rehearsal spaces, where they’ve routinely looked either frozen, scared, po-faced and often a combination of all three. The Thrills were almost always snapped, instead, in glorious technicolour and in exotic locations that were always more Venice Beach and less Dollymount Strand.

And it helped, of course, that they could take a decent close-up and looked like they enjoyed being photographed. In their carefully- styled vintage duds, they made like they were having a good time all of the time. And with a stash of irrepressible, radio-friendly pop songs in their locker, there was a time when they fleetingly had the world in their hands.

It’s an indication of the scale of their impact – and a reflection too of the dearth of genuine personalities in Ireland – that, as soon as they’d made an initial chart breakthrough in Britain, they found themselves regularly lampooned on ‘Gift Grub’, a comedy insert on ‘The Ian Dempsey Breakfast Show’, a weekday radio programme on the the national station, Today FM, where they featured alongside some of the more prominent political, entertainment and sports figures of the day.

‘Gift Grub’ has long given a soft soaping to the lighter end of the daily news lists and, in the absence of consistent writing and strong editing, its focus tends instead towards characters whose distinctive accents and verbal tics can be most easily replicated. And so The Thrills, with their soft, unfeasibly polite and American-blend South Dublin accents, became easy radio comedy fodder alongside staple characters like the Cork-born footballer, Roy Keane, the Donegal-born entertainer, Daniel O’Donnell and the rambling, shambling Drumcondra-born Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern.

But back in the real world, The Thrills career was on the crescent of one of those dramatic rollercoasters that often back-dropped their publicity photographs or their videos ;- they quickly gained a decent commercial foothold, sold records and made a real noise. Just as easy to lampoon was the shameless thievery that characterised their  sound, had the country’s comedy writers bothered to root around under the bonnet.

Well-read students of popular music history, The Thrills borrowed freely and to good effect. From the sun-kissed aspects of The Beach Boys to the clinical, designer-built friendliness of The Monkees and the confident but surly swagger of The Byrds, they were, at their peak, clinically re-parcelling old school tropes and, to the trained ear, the odd re-cycled riff. And they were a terrific burn.

But The Thrills came of age on record and an upward critical curve is clear to anyone who stayed the course with them for the four years from ‘So Much For The City’ in 2003 until ‘Teenager’ in 2007. Over the course of three albums on Virgin Records/EMI, they left a footprint that is as considerable as the division in Irish public opinion they created as they did so. And while they’ve not been entirely purged from the recent history of contemporary Irish music, their achievements – and, by current standards, those have been considerable – are far too easily lost in the wash.

By the time their pedalo ran aground – just after their record company heard the final mixes of ‘Teenager’, I suspect – not only had much of The Thrills’ fanbase moved on but the national optimism they’d sound-tracked back in Ireland had been spectacularly sundered. Against the backdrop of an international economic collapse – that led to the nationalisation of the Irish banking system, a period of prolonged austerity and a re-alignment of established political thinking – The Thrills just sounded utterly out of time. Like many others all over the country they were made redundant almost over-night.

But on record they’d developed a second skin and it’s a real shame that, just as they’d started to incorporate some of the more interesting aspects of the R.E.M. style-book into their sound, they were already whistling in the wind. Indeed creatively, they’d come very far very quickly and, by 2007, The Thrills were a much more sinewy proposition to the green-beats hand-picked by Morrissey to open for him during his fine comeback shows in Dublin’s Ambassador Theatre five years previously. And where they looked wafer-thin but to the manor born.

It’s to the band’s credit too that, unlike Bradford, The Ordinary Boys, Phranc and a host of others, The Thrills survived Morrissey’s infamous patronage – when it comes to endorsing new bands, he has the Midas touch in reverse – and went on to achieve mainstream success quickly thereafter.

Led by Conor Deasy, the band’s unconscionably good-looking and hirsute lead singer and their heartbeat and pulse, bass-player and guitarist Daniel Ryan, The Thrills’ debut album, ‘So Much For The City’ became, for many, a free-wheeling national soundtrack of sorts after its release in 2002. Apart from the singles, ‘Santa Cruz’, ‘One Horse Town’, ‘Big Sur’ and ‘Don’t Steal Our Sun’, that elpee also contains the mighty ‘Your Love Is Like Las Vegas’ and, across its eleven tracks, not a single word or accent to suggest where the band came from.

One of the recurring criticisms levelled at them – and, by any standards, The Thrills seemed to be held to account far more aggressively than many of their peers – is that their horizontal, JI-visa view of the world was just far too flimsy and narrow. The suggestion being that The Thrills could instead – like one of their own favourite Irish bands, Whipping Boy – have been documenting the minutiae of [sub]urban life in Dublin as opposed to that in San Diego, New York and California. They were scarcely believable, basically.

I can’t recall the same charges being ever put, though, to Snow Patrol, a band who share many of The Thrills key characteristics and who, at the same time, emerged in similar fashion and to the same effect. But I can certainly recall the core argument.

So I am reminded of the guts of the 1991 pamphlet by the writer and academic, Desmond Fennell – ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing’ – in which he took the poet Seamus Heaney to task for what the author perceived to be a failure to adequately address the plight of Northern Catholics within much of the poet and writer’s work.

Fennell, now in his 80s, has long been an engaging and free-thinking chronicler of Irish society and the nation’s character and, by 1991, had plenty of form. Throughout his considerable career – much of it spent abroad or on the fringes – he has rarely held back, especially on what he felt was the colonization of Irish art at the expense of more prevalent national issues ;- the ‘cleansing of Irish literature of Irishness’.

And yes, The Thrills were far from perfect. Lyrically, especially, they could be unforgivably naïve, while Conor was never the most gifted singer :- he had a limited vocal range at the best of times and, live, he often struggled to tip the top end. All three of the band’s albums also feature an amount of rockwool – more draught filler than decoration piece – while their specific cultural references, as these things do, have dated them quickly and badly.

But then there was the elephant loose on the beach :- the matter of the band’s background. They grew up in the South Dublin suburbs of Blackrock, Stillorgan and Ballinteer – and their education. Deasy and Ben Carrigan, the band’s drummer, are past pupils of Gonzaga College in Ranelagh, one of Dublin’s most elite and expensive fee-paying schools and more renowned, historically, for producing more lawyers and judges than rock and rollers.

And it would be naïve to think that – either consciously or not – this was never a factor in how the band was initially received and, latterly, how The Thrills were critically assessed at home. Indeed The Irish Times was quick out of the blocks and, by July, 2003, was already sniping away under the cover of a ‘style over substance’ piece as if the band were bringing nothing but connections and good looks to the party. And whatever questions that existed around the band’s frame of reference were amplified by the sense that they were simply killing time, just monkeying around.

Which is, in my view, to seriously under-estimate the records they left behind them. And which got better – and less commercially successful – as they went. Their last album, ‘Teenager’ was led by the sturdy single, ‘Nothing Changes Around Here’ but that title was a real misnomer ;- by then everything had changed and The Thrills were burning oil. Curiously enough, the promo video featured Conor Deasy, alone, walking yet another sea-front, with the rest of the band nowhere. It had been merely five years since the clip for ‘Don’t Steal Our Sun’ where, in the worst traditions of The Monkees, a gang of pale Irish goofballs fetch up to shoot hoops on a public court with local slam-dunking magicians.

And this much was apparent throughout the exchange that Conor Deasy conducted with Michael Ross for a long feature piece in The Sunday Times’ Irish edition in 2007 where  he sounded like he’d just been ground down. It had been a relentless half-decade of record-tour-write-record-tour, underpinned by The Thrills’ dual efforts to impact in America and, as a pop group, to remain in the moment. And to this end they’re not the first band – and certainly not the first Irish band – to have been torn asunder by the scale of the U.S. inter-state highways and all that they bring with them.

The Thrills were never the finished article but, for five years, they were one of the most interesting and freshest Irish bands at play in the deeper end of the pool. And like many of the successful domestic acts who have divided the popular court here over the last forty years – U2, Sinéad O’Connor and The Boomtown Rats – The Thrills too have had their authenticity – or is it their audacity ? – fiercely questioned in their own backyards.

But it’s important and only fair that, in accurately assessing them, we play the ball and not the men.

THE STARS, THE THRILLS AND THE CLOCKS

 

One of the more attractive and visceral away trips for many of those involved in Gaelic games in Dublin is the winding drive up to Johnny Fox’s pub in Glengullen, the short walk across the wild mountainside and over to Stars Of Erin, one of the smallest clubs in the county and one of the most unique.

I’ve made my way up there regularly over the years with my daughters:- they play for a neighbouring club and so matches and local blitzes at The Stars are a regular fixture for us. And if the games aren’t going well, the furze, the thin air and the views will invariably break the fall. So when your pocket-sized, eight year-old goalkeeper is having hassle with her air hurling, or if her ear-muffs aren’t fitting as comfortably as they might beneath her out-sized helmet, you’re still close enough and high enough to touch the face of God.

And then there’s the trip back down ;- the sort of journey that can easily lead off-track. Often the four miles or so across county bounds and into the new-age village of Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow, where the artisan coffee and ice cream will quickly deaden a fella’s wallet. The essence of The Stars Of Erin is captured here in a terrific, re-assuring Irish Times profile by Ian O’Riordan that should be required reading for anyone swamped in the existential quagmire that goes with volunteering in the country’s largest sports organisation.

But while the bigger, more populated local clubs that surround them – Ballyboden St. Endas, Kilmacud Crokes, Cuala and even our own up in Ballinteer Saint Johns – have the numbers, scale, sponsors and profile to keep them trucking on another plane altogether, none of them have the rare beauty you get up at The Stars.

Which might explain how and why, every time I set foot up there, my mind is distracted towards another, off-road local wonder, The Stars Of Heaven, the one-time Dublin guitar band who, every bit as rarefied as their cosmic brothers and sisters in the mountains, still have an enigma of their own. Matched only, over many years, by the extent of their legend to a small but fiercely loyal band of anoraks and collectors.

 

 

If positive critical notices and unquestioning, die-hard fanaticism could be harvested, measured and sold, The Stars would have been one of the best-selling Irish acts of the last millennium. But they were never designed for that in the first place and their billing in contemporary Irish music history – honourable mentions alongside some of the city’s bigger beasts, references in the index and the odd footnote in broader pieces about guitars and the side-influence of country music – is fitting.

And to this end they’re still name-dropped frequently by men – and its practically always men – of a certain shape, age and short-sightedness – who invariably remember them more for what they weren’t and not for what they were.

The Stars might not have appreciated it at the time, but the rolling uncertainty that seemed to dog them throughout their six year existence may actually have conspired to bring the best from them. And they consistently did it their own way, regardless of how cack-handed that way sometimes looked and felt.

Sound-wise, they stood tall as an imperious guitar band with a wide frame of reference that went far beyond the obvious indie tropes of the period. Even if it was R.E.M., in the first instance, who enabled The Stars Of Heaven with whom, on many levels, they had plenty of common ground. Their bloodline went back to classic Americana, from Gram Parsons and The Byrds to The Band, with a flush Velvets finish and, often, a country swagger.

 

In the great traditions of the Australian band, The Go-Betweens – to whom they weren’t entirely dissimilar either – the writing duties were shared between the band’s primary pointmen, Stephen Ryan and Stan Erraught and, in their pomp, their material was as terrific as any and, generally, better and more tentacled than most. And yet The Stars could often be a frustrating and inconsistent live ticket – understandable enough given how fragile they often sounded on record – conveying a regular sense they might simply disintegrate mid-number and have to be carried off of a sound-stage somewhere. All of which only added to their lustre, of course, as regulars at what was once The Underground Bar on Dame Street will attest.

The Stars were on the fringes of a cluster of emerging, guitar-driven Dublin groups that built up their earliest stock at that small downstairs venue operated by Jeff Brennan and his father, Noel, during the mid- 1980s. Among them Something Happens, A House, Rex And Dino, Backwards Into Paradise, Guernica, The Slowest Clock and, later, Power Of Dreams and Whipping Boy. And as such, The Underground is rightly remembered as a vital and doggedly free-thinking stepping stone in the development of many of the country’s best and most interesting bands and performers during this time.

I’ve referred to Jeff, Noel and the venue on several occasions previously but easily the most perceptive and adroit piece on what is still one of Dublin’s most fondly-recalled dives is this written by one of the venue’s best-known graduates and a man who saw the place from every angle, including the tiny stage and what passed for the toilets.

The spirit of that bar and it’s small but obscenely colourful cohort of staff, patrons and various hangers-on – you’d go there as quickly for the nightly floorshow as you would for the music or the beer – is also captured, with contributions from some of its other alumni, on a short album, ‘Live At The Underground’, that was recorded there over consecutive nights in September, 1985. Released on Jeff’s own, strictly one-off label, Fear And Loathing Records, the record was primarily sold – or in many cases just given away – from behind the bar. And on it, early warning notices were served by Something Happens and A House, alongside The Stars Of Heaven, who contributed ‘Hey Little Child’ to the short, sharp six-tracker.

The history of Irish rock music during the 1980s is defined to a huge degree by U2’s global breakthrough and, in its slipstream, the industry’s determination – doomed and reckless as it was – to locate others like them around Ireland. But unlike Something Happens and A House, their contemporaries on ‘Live At The Underground’ and in whose company they’re frequently referenced, The Stars Of Heaven never got away on a major label :- they fetched up, instead, on Rough Trade Records, whose revered founder, Geoff Travis, in keeping with much of the band’s narrative, just didn’t like their first and only fully-formed studio album, ‘Speak Slowly’.

And so while, in their broken frame, The Stars were the absolute antithesis of U2’s stadium-sized ballast, they stayed outside many of the left-field conventions of the day too. Even if, in one of those unlikely codas so typical of the cracked looking glass of Irish popular music history, they briefly consorted with U2’s label, Mother Records, towards the end of their career. For whom they recorded – with the one-time R.E.M. producer, Mitch Easter – but never actually released any material.

I first came across The Stars on Dave Fanning’s Rock Show on what was then RTÉ Radio 2FM – where else ? – during that period in 1985 when they’d released their debut single, ‘Clothes Of Pride/’All About You’, on Eamonn Carr’s Hotwire label and were making regular cameos at The Underground. And after which they seemed to stay resident on the edge of everything, perhaps too tender and lyrically delicate for the general mood of the period, which could all be a bit rushed, loud and frantic and into which many of their peers slipped seamlessly.

And I should say that, to my mind, Stephen Ryan is easily the best Irish lyricist I’ve come across in my years spent hunting and collecting and, as recently as his 2015 album with The Drays, ‘Look Away Down Collins Avenue’, was still at it, working both ‘antihistamine’ and ‘Roger from Supertramp’ into one of the many magnificent songs on that elpee. His ability to knit words and sentiment so easily and convincingly would be worth a long-read of its own if one didn’t feel so consistently inadequate by comparison just looking at his work laid out.

It’s no surprise that The Stars seemed to keep their best work for the small hours. They recorded a number of mesmerising late night radio sessions over the years, initially for Fanning’s ‘Rock Show’ and then more notably for John Peel’s BBC One show where, in the dead of night, they sounded for once like they were perfectly in synch with time and space. Those recordings were made available on the Rough Trade mini-albums, ‘Sacred Heart Hotel’ and ‘Rain On The Sea’, which were both released in 1987. [The latter is actually the former, with an additional four track E.P. attached].

The Stars had everything and nothing in common with their peers back at The Underground. In their suede jackets, plaid shirts and smart boots – the uniform of the time, the clothes of pride – even at their loudest they still kept their guitars in check, in open defiance of many of the core conventions of the time. Like several of those who came after them – Hinterland, Brian, Villagers and Jubilee Allstars, particularly – it was the quiet and the space between the bars that determined them and set them apart. The Stars really did come alive in the dark.

Which is why I always found it funny that the front cover of The Stars’1988 studio album, ‘Speak Slowly’, featured a close-up shot of a solid steel wheel on one of C.I.É.’s rolling stock of trains. Carefully assembled and crafted in the old school, The Stars’ own casters often moved very slowly too and they were also just as liable to break down without warning.

Which isn’t to say that The Stars lacked sturdy engineering and heft ;- they could wig out with the best and indeed the worst of them but they were often far too delicate for their own bodies and in this respect, had far more in common with the likes of another local band, Hey Paulette, than they did with the more forceful, psychotic characters in The Underground. Apart, perhaps, from The Slowest Clock, with whom they shared a kindred philosophy far more than they ever did a sound.

The Slowest Clock were another of the Dublin bands of that period who were far too interesting – and all too frequently bored – for their own good. Powered by a furious guitar sound that regularly filled the premium spaces left by angled, full-bodied bass runs, they were an American underground outfit in all but birth-certificate – classic Velvets, Television, Husker Du – that set Sir Henry’s alight once or twice over the years. They sounded nothing at all like The Stars and yet shared far more of their characteristics than one might imagine.

But I don’t think that The Stars’ influence has been heard as obviously or as overtly on any Irish band as it was in the early 2000s when the South Dublin pop band, The Thrills, were making hay, front covers and commercially successful, sun-blushed records. The Thrills were ardent students – and fawning fans – of Whipping Boy, the Dublin/Kildare outfit that first cut a memorable dash as noisy, sneering young men at The Underground.

 

 

They released three terrific albums on Virgin Records that, to my mind, just got better and more interesting – and less commercially popular – as they went. And from the get-go, I detected a real Stars influence at work in them. Apart, entirely, from the shared set of influences and the incorrigible, horizontal feel to much of their output, Conor Deasy’s breathy vocal delivery – and that perennial struggle to scale the top of his register – was instantly redolent of Stephen Ryan’s most attractive vocal feature.

The Thrills were enthusiastic collectors in their own right and were well plugged into the history of contemporary Irish music. And to that end, they’d have been more than familiar with The Stars and their fine back catalogue.

Much of which, in one form or another, is compiled on ‘Unfinished Dreaming’, a substantial compendium of the band’s material that was eventually released in 1999 after a painstaking gestation of many years on the small Dublin label, Independent Records. And lovingly curated by David O’Grady, who I first encountered around the fringes of the Dublin left-field scene thirty years ago and who has evidently defied science in the decades since by looking younger now than when he was first clocking me into venues on Engine Alley’s guestlists.

On one of the versions of ‘Unfinished Dreaming’, The Stars are snapped on the front sleeve, outside of someone’s sash window, looking in as forlornly as usual, at an ornately decorated front room. As self-aware and as self-deprecating until the end, they’re still speaking to us from beyond the tomb.

CODA :– All four members of the band stayed involved in music to Varying extents. Stephen Ryan went on to lead the rowdy Revenants and then subsequently, and currently, The Drays, while Stan fetched up as a member of The Sewing Room, who laid the extent of their ambition bare on their debut album, ‘And Nico’. Peter O’Sullivan, the bass player, went on to play with a good-time, loosely-formed Tex-Mex collective, The Wilf Brothers. And I last encountered the band’s drummer, Bernard Walsh, when he sat in as a member of one of the regular backing bands we used to use on The Late Late Show, although eagle-eyed Stars- watchers will frequently see him credited as a stills photographer on numerous Irish-produced dramas and feature films. His name often cited alongside Ray Harman, the Something Happens guitarist and now an award-winning composer for the big screen.

 

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© Colm O’Callaghan

 

SWIM

Swim were cut apart from their peers on the Dublin circuit during the late eighties and early nineties on many levels and it was easy to see, and even easier to hear, exactly why. For one, they weren’t a routine guitar band dipped in the spirit of either The Smiths and/or R.E.M. and, maybe more importantly, they made no secret of their ambitions. ‘What we’d probably like to do’, the band’s formidable singer, Joe Reilly, told an RTÉ music series called ‘Check It Out’ back in 1989, ‘is get signed and make lots of money’.

Reilly was Swim’s pivot and, around him, a band of excellent musicians added heft to his imposing tenor on songs written, initially, with Donegal-born keyboard player, John McCrea. And later, in a second, short-lived iteration, guitarist Pat Donne. The fact that they were all strong, proficient players made Swim a real curiousity: the pulling, dragging and primal squall of indie guitars just didn’t interest them. Instinctively drawn more to the chrome and leather of The Bailey than the spit and sawdust of The White Horse, their pitch aspired to the broad and grand: Steely Dan’s ‘Aja’, Roxy Music’s ‘Avalon’ and Love And Money’s second album, ‘Strange Kind Of Love’. Even if the end result often sounded closer to the full-bodied, if often lumpy, pop sound of Deacon Blue than it did to the knotted, jazz-wash of ‘Deacon Blues’, I still marked them up for ambition.

Swim’s bloodline went back to Geoffrey’s First Affair, a curious Dublin outfit with sassy intentions who flirted briefly with infamy when Larry Mullen produced their debut single, ‘And The Days Go By’ for Solid Records in 1986. Comprised initially of singer Ed Darragh, John McCrea and guitarist Hughie Purcell – and later, also featuring drummer Dave Dawson – their friendly pop/soul sound quickly disappeared up a cul-de-sac. But when McCrea and Joe Reilly formed Swim shortly thereafter, they brought with them similar aspirations. With a line-up completed by bassist Paul Holmes, guitarist Niall Conheady and Paul Daly on saxophone, Swim were also unusual in that, for an emerging, well-connected Dublin group cutting a shape around town during the late 1980s, they had an ambivalent relationship with Hot Press, then as now the country’s dominant music magazine.

One review in particular, from the late Bill Graham, was especially savage: ‘Their only value’, he concluded, ‘is that they epitomise every possible Irish mistake of 1988, a mismatch of thoughtless style and null content’. Now, the late Bill Graham is rightly lauded as one of Ireland’s finest critics and music writers and, to many of a certain age, enjoys a mythical status: he often brought a wide span of reference to his work, much of which borrowed from academic constructs and tropes. But the line of critical thinking he applied to Swim was also relevant to many of the other Irish groups hawking their wares during that period and by whom Hot Press, for whatever reasons, seemed to be consistently seduced.

Even Swim’s cheerleaders tended to water down their enthusiasm for them in public: the band just didn’t display the kind of unbridled rock and roll chops for which Hot Press was keeping Ireland safe. A point not lost either on those who saw Swim in Sir Henry’s in Cork at the end of the 1980s, most of whom were left positively underwhelmed. I’ve written previously about how that venue could often be unforgiving and cold, a bleak spot whenever the mood took her, that swallowed many an unsuspecting band whole. A core of the venue’s regulars were, for years, blindly loyal to the brass-neck cartoonery of The Golden Horde – for whom Bill Graham had a real soft spot – and the splayed shapes of Blue In Heaven, both of whom attracted unstinting devotion in Cork simply because, to my mind, they just did unfiltered, full-frontal coercion. In front of that sort of a crowd, Swim were onto an absolute battering.

This only stoked up the contrarian in me. While Swim sounded far too rigid and linear to ever be wholly essential, I still thought there was room somewhere for their hand-washed brand of adult-orientated pop music and that, in their fresh denims and roll-necks, they just had a different kind of cutting to them. And Gary Katz, Steely Dan’s long-time producer, maybe thought so too: after Swim signed a major label deal with MCA, he agreed to produce the band’s first album.

Over the years, Ireland has made several noble stabs at the more developed, smarter end of the pop market: later-period Microdisney, The Fat Lady Sings, Hinterland, The Four Of Us, The Thrills and, more recently, Little Green Cars, all loosely occupy this space, each of them sculpting their bodies with the help of interesting supplements and nutrients, often layered keys and loops. It was to The Fat Lady Sings’ credit, for instance, that they took on conventional taste laws and added, on occasion, a piano accordion to their normal floor-routine. While The Thrills bravely raised the stakes when they unfurled a banjo into their frontline around the time of their third album, ‘Teenager’, admittedly as their career was drifting in the roaring forties .

Swim are very much a part of this number even if, like Hinterland – another local act far more at home within the controlled air of the studio than on the live stage – they barely register in the histories of recent Irish popular music. Substantial information about them is difficult to find and, with the band’s only album long deleted and almost impossible to locate, it’s as if someone has deliberately purged them. But for a couple of years, as they played the arenas with Cher and Fleetwood Mac, and enjoyed major label patronage, they had much going on.

‘Sundrive Road’, the group’s first and only album, was released in the summer of 1990, recorded at Ridge Farm in Surrey and over-dubbed and mixed at length at various locations in Ireland, England and New York. Named after the road in Crumlin where Reilly grew up, it was a stylish and well-appointed affair that, in a local context, sat utterly out of time with it’s surroundings. While Swim aspired to the urbane, around them the domestic market had become increasingly pock-marked by what the late George Byrne termed ‘designer bogmen’, many of them based in or deriving from the west of Ireland.

From Tuam in County Galway, The Sawdoctors made smart, eloquent noises about rural dislocation, small- town disaffection and the spirit of the unlikely under-dog that were undone, ultimately, by the absolute paucity of the band’s material. Which, despite the lofty claims of it’s authors, was more brucellosis than Bruce. Down the road, meanwhile, The Waterboys had become the latest victims of the Galway city flytrap: having taken an eternity to complete the permeable ‘Fisherman’s Blues’, and now about to release it’s lesser follow-up, ‘Room To Roam’, their sound had become infected by the rash of unruly raggle-taggle that had long popped the air around Shop Street and Mainguard. While The Stunning, on the lumpier end of the distinctly average, were on a scarcely believable upward curve that saw them head-line the outdoor Féile festival in Semple Stadium, Thurles in 1993. With it’s lacquered finish and subtle production tricks, ‘Sundrive Road’ was belligerently out of line and, in it’s own way, an affront.

Gary Katz had produced all of Steely Dan’s records and, by the middle of 1990, had also just completed the first sessions for what would later become Paul Brady’s ‘Trick Or Treat’ album. But in keeping with much of the Swim story, ‘Sundrive Road’ isn’t acknowledged on the producer’s discography on his own website. And yet Katz’s fingerprints are all over the record: indeed one of the most truly arresting aspects of the record is the sheer calibre of the numerous session players engaged by him to augment the core sound. The credits list on ‘Sundrive Road’ makes for remarkable reading, noting contributions by many incredible players and performers, all of them pulled readily, you’d suspect, from the producer’s rolodex.

Among those who feature on the record are Fonzi Thornton, one of the most decorated and in-demand backing vocalists of the last forty years and who features on records by Aretha Franklin, David Bowie, Ray Charles and a litany of others. The late Paul Griffin added Hammond organ on a couple of tracks, as he did previously on the likes of ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, ‘Blonde On Blonde’ and ‘Aja’ itself. Hugh McCracken – another stellar session player whose name features on those interminable Steely Dan credits – contributes harmonica, having previously done do with everyone from Billy Joel to Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel to Dionne Warwick. While saxophonist Lou Marini had previously appeared in both Blues Brothers films, was at one point a member of Blood, Sweat and Tears and boasts a string of other session credits to his name. Whether Swim were aware at the time exactly who they were dealing with isn’t clear.

And yet for all that, I still think that Swim could have done more to help their own cause. Long-time watchers – and there were at least ten of us – were mildly surprised to see that one of their most impactful early songs, ‘There Like An Angel’, a staple of their live sets that tailed off in a burst of twinned saxophone lines, hadn’t made the final cut, held in reserve, instead, as a future B-side. Indeed there was relatively little sax on the record at all: one of the group’s long-standing calling cards had been stripped right back, the gaps filled instead with lines and lines of subtle guitars and added vocal parts.

Elsewhere, ‘So Long Manhattan’, another of Swim’s centre-pieces, was slowed and stripped, a one-time show-stealer denuded, it’s strength lost to the barber’s blade. It was the titles, though, that really told the tale of the tape. ‘Buffaloes’, ‘Road’, ‘Harbour’ and and ‘Christmas In Colorado’ – as well, of course, as ‘So Long Manhattan’ – were all migration songs of a sort, yearning variously for wide plains, warm boozers and home comforts and, in his gut, Reilly was torn between the cosiness of the familiar and the uncertain promise of the faraway field.

The opener, ‘I Believe’, with it’s full-bodied piano thump, wouldn’t have been out of place on any of the first three Deacon Blue records: indeed Ger Kiely’s guitar parts borrowed freely from the late Graeme Kelling who, with no little style, deftly joined the dots on ‘Raintown’ and ‘When The World Knows Your Name’, especially. And with shades too of Love And Money and Danny Wilson’s excellent debut album ‘Meet Danny Wilson’, ‘Sundrive Road’ generally resounded to the ache of the readily recognizable. But it was when the group went off script and opened up the arc a bit that it was at it’s most impactful: ‘Wonderful Thunder’, the record’s closer and the only one of the dozen written by bass-player Paul Holmes with Reilly, may well have been a random studio doodle and yet, with it’s soft keyboard push, wouldn’t have been out of place on Prefab Sprout’s ‘Jordan : The Comeback’. In trailing off, ‘Sundrive Road’ hints at what might have been.

But of course the whole enterprise was doomed to fail anyway. After all, Swim were simply following a three-act story-line familiar to many Irish bands that went before them and many more again who came after. Signed to a major label in a hail of activity, sustained cheaply on a wage for twelve months with the odd bone thrown from the top table, then dumped without a whisper after a single, contractually obligatory album. Once the singles, ‘I Believe’ and ‘Rachel’, failed to detonate, they were over and out, Swim’s genetic profile making the parting as practical as it was inevitable.

But they did, in a roundabout way, make at least one significant and long-standing contribution to the course of popular Irish music during the 1990s. With Swim’s corpse still warm, the band’s drummer, Dave Dawson, replaced Dermot Wylie behind the traps with A House, just as the Walkinstown band was about to enter the most articulate and successful phase of it’s career, immediately prior to the recording of ‘I Am The Greatest’. Dawson was an absolute machine who worked his way effortlessly around the kit and, alongside Martin Healy on bass, built A House a formidable, energy-efficient foundation on their last three albums. To me, he’s easily up there alongside the likes of Fran Breen and Noel Bridgeman as one of the country’s finest ever drummers. Now married and living in America, he packed the biscuit tins away years ago and no longer plays.

And what of his one-time band-mates in Swim ? Well, Joe Reilly and Paul Holmes were still dabbling with the dark arts up to relatively recently even if, beyond the odd on-line post, not a whole lot else has been made known. Ger Kiely is still a familiar presence as a session player and, formidable across a wide range of styles, is likely to turn up anywhere and with anyone: among many other things, he also composes these days for radio comedy output. John McCrea, another terrific player with a mighty range and a broad field of vision, has composed and scored more classical-rooted material for bespoke film and art projects and runs a music school in south county Dublin.

CODA :- Given the lack of basic research material on Swim as outlined above, I owe another debt to my friend, Chris O’Brien, the producer and engineer who, once again, went back into his diaries and who pulled all of the factual threads here into order for us. That man, and his diaries, should be protected by some sort of national heritage order.