The Undertones

U2 AND THE ARC

U2 - UCC Downtown Kampus Cork 1979 copyright Pat Galvin

U2 – UCC Downtown Kampus Cork 1979 © Pat Galvin

 

In December, 1992, the Cork-born showband singer, Tony Stevens, sustained multiple injuries when the van in which he was travelling back home after a show in the West of Ireland was involved in a serious road collision. He spent the best part of a year recovering in hospital, endured many subsequent years when he was physically unable to perform and saw his career locked in the sidings and his considerable national profile all but lost. Five years later, the full details of the accident and the extent of it’s impact emerged during a High Court case in Cork, in which he settled an action for damages.

 

Stevens, whose real name is Tony Murphy, was a welder from Cork who, during the mid-1970s, went full-time onto Ireland’s lucrative cabaret circuit and quickly developed a decent domestic standing. Clean-cut and affable, he pitched himself as a young, middle-of-the-road crooner among an established cohort of old-school performers. Backed by his band, Western Union, he gigged early and often, playing inoffensive covers and making regular appearances on RTÉ’s light entertainment shows, plugging his numerous releases, of which a cover of ‘To All The Girls I Loved Before’ is easily his best known. And as such, he’s an unlikely starting point for a story about U2 and that group’s long association with Cork city and it’s people.

 

During the summer of 1977, the main canteen on the U.C.D. campus at Belfield hosted what was billed as ‘Ireland’s first punk rock festival’. The line-up featured some of the country’s most exciting and freshest punk-pop and new-wave outfits, headed-up by The Radiators From Space, who’d released their debut single, ‘Television Screen’, months Earlier. Among those on the undercard were the emerging Derry outfit, The Undertones and The Vipers, a local mod-fused power-pop band who, among their number, was Brian Foley, who later fetched up alongside Paul Cleary as a member of The Blades.

 

The UCD event was marred by – and is, sadly, best remembered for – the death of an eighteen year old man, Patrick Coultry, from Cabra, who was stabbed after a row broke out in the crowd during the concert. Over thirty years later, John Fisher, who promoted the show and who went on to manage the career of the comedian, Dermot Morgan, recalled in a piece for the excellent Hidden History of UCD blog how, at the time, ‘gigs in Ireland were pretty simple affairs. They were run by enthusiastic amateurs, with very little security. After Belfield it became more regulated, more professional and safe’.

 

Elvera Butler, from Thurles, County Tipperary was, by her own admission, one of those enthusiastic amateurs who, from humble beginnings, and possibly more by default than design, went on to become, like John Fisher and a slew of others from that period, key players in the domestic entertainment industry.

 

She had become the recently-installed Entertainment Officer on the Student’s Union at University College, Cork during that period when, in Britain, The Sex Pistols released ‘God Save The Queen’ and The Clash unleashed their vital, self-titled debut album. And, by so doing, fundamentally democratised many of the long-established tenets that tended to under-pin the entertainment industry. Punk rock was, in many respects, just doing it for itself and urging everyone else to do likewise.

 

As part of her brief, Butler staged regular live music shows – mostly low-key, often solo acoustic affairs – on the U.C.C. campus, primarily in The College Bar. But from time to time, she’d book bigger and more established acts like Sleepy Hollow and Stagalee to perform in The Kampus Kitchen, a large, low-ceilinged restaurant buried deep in what was then the college’s Science block. When, towards the end of 1977, an opportunity to move those shows into a bigger venue off-site presented itself, the College travelled the three mile distance downtown, to what was then known as The New Arcadia Ballroom on The Lower Road, opposite Kent Station.

 

The first ever live show advertised in the local press as a Downtown Kampus event, took place in it’s new home on Thursday, November 24th, 1977, when The Memories played live at that year’s ‘Cowpuncher’s Ball’ ;- admission was one pound. The following night, down in the belly of the building, Tweed, a Kilkenny-based, pub-rock seven-piece headlined the night that formally christened The Downtown Kampus. ‘UCC Kampus Kitchen moves downtown to New Arcadia MacCurtain St’ [sic], ran the text that accompanied the small box advert in The Evening Echo.

 

And on Saturday, November 26th, the Cobh-born Freddie White [and his band, Fake], and Dublin hard rocker, Jimi Slevin, played a two-handed headliner that book-ended the venue’s opening weekend ;- The Arc was up and running.

 

The Downtown Kampus rightly enjoys a mythical standing in the history of contemporary music in Cork, as much for the quality and spirit of the music it hosted as for what it represented in wider socio-cultural terms. Over the course of it’s three-and-a-half year life-span, it hosted a series of often chaotic, widely diverse and fondly recalled live shows at a time when, in the after-glow of punk rock, Cork was a city light on glamour. And during the late 1970s, Ireland’s second city, over-dependent on a cluster of long-standing, traditional industries, could indeed be a grim and dank place. Albeit one with serious notions and a long-standing creative under-belly.

 

During the summer of 1977, Fianna Fáil had been returned to power following a landslide victory in that year’s general election and the party’s leader, Jack Lynch, in whose constituency in Cork North Central The Arcadia Ballroom was located, was elected Taoiseach with a huge majority. In early September, Martin O’Doherty of Glen Rovers, the fabled northside club of Christy Ring, Josie Hartnett, John Lyons and Jack Lynch himself, captained the Cork senior hurling team to their second All-Ireland hurling title in a row :- they’d memorably complete a famous three-in-a-row the following year.

 

But it isn’t unreasonable to suggest that those live shows at The Arcadia gave a young and clued-in sub-section of Cork society a real glimpse of something more arresting and moderately glamorous ;- a cracked window beyond which was another time and another place, far from the the more traditional influences of establishment politics and Gaelic Games.

 

And this is reflected in the full list of acts that performed there – local, national and international – that’s as varied as it is long and that runs the line fully from the likes of John Otway to The Beat, The Specials to Nun Attax, XTC to Sleepy Hollow and that also includes The Only Ones, The Blades, UB40, The Undertones, The Cure, The Damned, Doctor Feelgood, The Virgin Prunes and hundreds of others. Practically all of them enticed to perform at The Arcadia by Elvera Butler who promoted most of those shows and, betimes, by Denis Desmond, then a fledgling agent working in the U.K., now one of the biggest and most powerful players on the international music circuit.

 

Bono of U2 performing at the Arcadia Ballroom, Cork, Ireland on March 1 1980

Bono of U2 performing at the Arcadia Ballroom, Cork, Ireland on March 1 1980 © David Corio

 

The U.C.C. Downtown Kampus at The Arcadia Ballroom is still best known, however, because of the many live shows played there between 1978 and 1980 by U2, the young Dublin band who, during this period, were in search of a beginning. Like every teenage band with ambition, they were still trying to locate a distinguishing voice in a crowded field while also building up flying-hours, putting money in the bank. In Paul McGuinness, they had a connected manager who was sussed in the dark arts of public relations and marketing and, unusually enough, they appeared to have a strategy. Part of which was to play as many shows as they could as often as they could and wherever they could while, in parallel, developing their song-writing.

 

Contrary to popular belief, U2’s first Cork show wasn’t in The Arcadia at all but, rather, in The Stardust, now The Grand Parade Hotel, on July 7th, 1978. On that night, they were supported by a young local outfit, Asylum, featuring Sam O’Sullivan on drums :- he has long been part of U2’s core road crew working, to this day, as the band’s drum technician.

 

The band’s first appearance in The Arc took place later that same year when, on September 30th, they supported the Swindon new wave band, XTC, and were paid £80 for their troubles. Its not entirely clear how many shows U2 played at The Arcadia – its either nine or ten – but what is certain is that, by the time they took the stage there for the last time – in December, 1980, when they were supported by a young local band, Microdisney – they’d built up a decent and loyal following around Cork and, as has long been documented, had also assembled the bulk of a road crew plucked from the scene there, many of whom would serve them for decades thereafter. Primary among them Joe O’Herlihy, who did their front-of-house sound in The Arc and who remains an integral component of U2’s operation, listed these days as the band’s ‘audio director’.

 

 

On Saturday, March 1st, 1980, U2’s set at The Arcadia was witnessed by the young British music writer, Paul Morley, who was assigned to write the band’s first major feature piece for the influential London-based music weekly, New Musical Express. And on the morning after that show, he sat down with Bono in ‘the cheaply luxurious lounge of The Country Club hotel’ to gauge the extent of the band’s ambition a matter of weeks before U2 signed a major recording deal with Island Records. According to the piece, which appeared in print on March 22nd, 1980, the band was then ‘at the rare-in-Eire point where they’re recognised in the streets, hounded for autographs at Gaelic Football matches’.

 

U2 on the roof of the Cork Country Club Hotel, Cork, Ireland March 2 1980

U2 on the roof of the Cork Country Club Hotel, Cork, Ireland March 2 1980 © David Corio

Thirty-seven years on, that two-pager – off-set by a series of terrific snaps by David Corio, then a young free-lancer who has since gone on to photograph some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry – makes for terrific, if sometimes bizarre reading. In part a considered policy paper from Bono – who, in outlining U2’s plans to take their shtick beyond Ireland, takes aim at a number of his peers – and in part an over-excited, fanzine-style sermon by Morley about the vagaries of the music business and the state of the Irish nation, it concludes over its closing furlongs with the following quote from
the singer :

 

We’ve been given Lego, and we’re learning to put things together in new ways. This is a stage that we’ve got to that I’m not ashamed of, but I believe we will get much stronger’.

 

Later that afternoon, a fleet of cars carrying the band, it’s small crew and Paul Morley, left Cork to play yet another live show, this time at The Garden Of Eden, a dance-hall in Tullamore, County Offaly, then a four-hour drive away, where U2 were scheduled to play a ninety-minute set. Supporting the night’s head-liner, Tony Stevens and his band.

 

Tullamore is referred to throughout Paul Morley’s NME piece as Tullermeny [Bono’s real-name is also mistakenly noted as ‘Paul Houston’], possibly because the writer is especially scathing of the town and it’s youth ;– ‘they rarely smile and there is a far away look in their eyes’, he writes. But he reserves his most savage lines for the showband culture and for Tony Stevens in particular, whom he frames, not unreasonably, as a cultural counter-point to post-punk and the very antithesis of what U2, at the time, were attempting to do. ‘Showbands are slick, soulless, plastic’, he writes. ‘The showbands are failed rock musicians, their faces shine with aftershave … their technique is improbably over-competent’. Even if, whenever the definitive, unfiltered history of Ireland’s showbands is eventually captured, the darker realities of that scene will be far removed from such casual stereotyping.

 

By Bono’s own reckoning, U2 died miserably on-stage at The Garden Of Eden. Taking the carpeted floor shortly after 11PM, they were greeted, at best, by a minimal audience response. ‘Sat along the front of the stage’, Morley wrote in his NME piece, ‘bored looking girls can’t even be bothered to turn around and see what all the commotion is about’. The venue manager was just as bemused :- ‘Very good’, he quipped. ‘Much different from Horslips’.

 

I felt ashamed because we didn’t work’, Bono told Morley. ‘I actually saw it as a great challenge. It became like slow motion. We blew the challenge, and that’s bad’. But Tony Stevens and his band fared far better in Tullamore and, shortly after they opened their two-hour set, comprised in the main of contemporary chart hits, the dance floor began to fill.

 

The story of Tony Stevens’s fleeting dalliance with U2 one Sunday night in 1980, deep inside Ireland’s midlands, was one of a number that didn’t make the final cut of ‘U2 Agus An Arc’, Tony McCarthy’s film about that period that airs on RTÉ One television on July 20th next. Because in many respects, the commercial half-hour just isn’t enough to do justice to a story that, although rooted in music and the culture of youth, also extends way beyond that.

 

The last ever Downtown Kampus show at The Arcadia took place on May  30th, 1981 when four Cork bands ;- a nascent Belson, a noisy, multi-part Microdisney, Sabre – who included a young John Spillane among their number – and Prague Over Here, featuring the future RTÉ radio reporter Fergal Keane on bass – brought the curtain down on what, in hindsight, is a wholly distinctive local history.

 

Months earlier, forty-eight people lost their lives when a fire broke out during the early hours of Valentine’s Day at a disco at The Stardust nightclub in Artane, on Dublin’s northside. That disaster, and the scale of the loss of life and the age profile of those who died, had a profound impact – politically, socially and legally – on many of the day-to-day dealings of the state. Particularly so on those, like Elvera Butler, who were promoting big, live social events to the same age cohort in similarly-sized venues across the country. In an interview with the Irish Mail on Sunday in March, 2012, Butler told Danny McElhinney that ‘after the Stardust disaster, insurance premiums for gigs rocketed and we knew we couldn’t go on for long. Then the hunger strikes happened not long after that and a lot of bands were avoiding Ireland altogether’.

 

Not long afterwards, she decamped to London with her partner, Andy Foster, from where she initially ran a small independent imprint, Reekus Records, that issued quality wax by a series of superb Irish bands, The Blades and the epic Big Self among them. The label continues to release new material, albeit on a more ad hoc basis and, now living back in Ireland, Elvera retains a direct involvement in the development of young, emerging Irish talent.

 

After many years off of the track, Tony Stevens made his way back very slowly onto the cabaret circuit and eventually resumed a career of sorts, albeit to nowhere like the same extent he once enjoyed. He still performs live, at home and abroad, with his current band, The Rusty Roosters.

 

And U2 ? Within ten years of their last show in The Acradia, U2 were among the biggest and most influential rock bands on the planet and, for many years thereafter, the most compelling and distinctive live draw anywhere. And yet there are those around Cork who remember those magical nights on The Lower Road when many a noisy local rival or an international peer blitzed them off-stage, handed them their arses and sent them packing back out on the road to Dublin.

 

And they may well be right and they may well be wrong.

 

Ghostown: The Dublin Music Scene 1976 – 1980

 

FÓGRA :- ‘U2 Agus An Arc’, directed by Tony McCarthy, airs on RTÉ One television on Thursday, July 20th, at 7PM.

 

FÓGRA EILE :- Cork librarian, Gerry Desmond, has compiled a definitive list of all of the Downtown Kampus shows and this typically thorough undertaking was of huge benefit to us in compiling this piece. And is, of course, a fine public service. Go raibh maith agat.

THIS IS NO DISCO

 

 

On Shrove Tuesday night, February 28th, 1995, I fetched up at Dublin’s  R.D.S. and, as I wound my way up the long avenue, in past the security hut and around the clusters of other invitees and liggers, my mind was cast back twelve months, back to a time when we were all a bit less sure on our feet. A handful of us had gathered to support our friend and colleague, Dónal Dineen ;- ‘No Disco’, the programme he reluctantly presented and the one that I enthusiastically but naively devised and produced was about to claim the Vincent Hanley Memorial Award at the Hot Press Music Critics’ Awards. Much to our surprise, we received one of the best receptions of the night, but then ‘surprise’ is a dominant theme throughout the early history of ‘No Disco’. 

Among the other winners that Pancake Night were A House, who took the gongs for ‘Best Single’ and ‘Best Video’ for ‘Endless Art’ and Terri Hooley, the Belfast maverick who, among other things, founded the Good Vibrations record shop and cajoled The Undertones through their labour. We were in good company and had come a long way in the fifteen months since ‘No Disco’ first stumbled onto the national airwaves at the end of September, 1993.

 The Hot Press event was sponsored by one of the drinks companies, Smithwicks I think, and a few of us stayed around well into the night, Dónal apart. He doesn’t drink and, as long as I know him, has always  been in a rush to beat a hasty retreat. It was a strange old night as I recall it but an important one for the series on several levels. I’d been based in Dublin for the previous number of months, attending a full-time  training course out in RTÉ and, for practical reasons, just couldn’t keep going. I was reluctantly cutting my lingering ties with ‘No Disco’ and, by killing my darling, was doing the show a real favour.

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‘No Disco’ was first broadcast on Thursday night, September 30th, 1993, and ran for the guts of a decade. The decision by RTÉ to discontinue the programme certainly created far more of a stir than the decision to start it all in the first place and its fair to say that the series was held deliberately under the radar, regarded largely as more of a strategic and technical experiment than an editorial one. Far from being launched, the series just fell into the schedules, like a flutered old lag around the fringes of a hen night. Brian Boyd, writing in The Irish Times on the week before we aired the first episode, opened his preview as follows ;- ‘Oh dear, they’re at it again. RTÉ are putting on a new young person’s music programme – pass the remote control and make it quick’. And it was difficult to blame his cynicism, especially given how even some of our own colleagues, baffled by what we were trying to do, expected ‘No Disco’ to fail so miserably too.

Twenty-two years after we started work on the very first episode, I’m still routinely reminded of ‘No Disco’. To a generation of middle-aged, music-loving parents now dealing with their own surly teenage sons and daughters, I’ll forever be part of the reason they were so distracted way back, late on Thursday nights, on what was then Network 2. At various work and social events, weddings and funerals over the years, I’ve been subjected to all manner of loose conversation regarding Paul Weller, Tindersticks, Kristin Hersh, The Afghan Whigs and the many other flag- bearers who dominated the early ‘No Disco’ songbook. ‘Ah, ‘’twas a long time ago’, I say, flattered. ‘There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since’. And then I suck the remaining air out of whatever room I’m in. I never learn.

‘No Disco’ has always attracted an awful lot of old guff, and I’ve been responsible for much of it myself. What’s undeniable is that, once this quite bizarre series settled down, it became an appointment to view – or, to our sizeable student cohort, to record on VHS – for a loyal and perfectly deformed audience of anoraks, enthusiasts, freaks and those who had issues dealing with regular society. It was a public health service as much as it was a public service statement.

In hindsight, it was Philip Kampff, then an RTÉ television producer who,among other things, masterminded the Gerry Ryan/Lambo heist as part of Gay Byrne’s radio series and later devised The Lyrics Board, planted the first seeds. During the late 1980s, Philip had exploited the production facilities in RTÉ’s regional studios to help feed a monster children’s television series called ‘Scratch Saturday’. I’d been recruited as a free-lancer onto his programme staff, producing a weekly music slot from RTÉ Cork’s new, city centre base in Father Mathew Street. When, four years later – and after an exotic trip around the fringes of the music industry in London and beyond – I returned to my old desk in Cork and informed the small band of local technicians that we’d shortly be producing an hour of music television every week for national broadcast, I was laughed all the way back out to Blackpool.

‘No Disco’ formed the first part of a broader RTÉ commitment to what was then referred to as ‘regional broadcasting’. The production base in Cork has since expanded beyond all recognition and is a far cry from the empty shell in which we set up shop in August, 1993, both in terms of the quality and quantity of it’s output. And so the next time you see John Creedon take a retro vehicle on a scenic driving tour of Ireland, you can blame Dónal Dineen.

 

 

I was working with Jeff Brennan in The Rock Garden in Temple Bar in Dublin during the Summer of 1993 when I was summoned out to RTÉ to meet Eugene Murray. Eugene had been a former editor on Today Tonight and, now running RTÉ’s Presentation Division, believed we could produce cost-effective programming [or, if you prefer, no-budget television] from the skeleton facility in Cork, using the old ‘Scratch Saturday’ template and building on it. Having few other interests, commitments or concerns, I defaulted to what I knew best and, taking my cues variously from previous RTÉ music programmes like ‘MT USA’ and Dave Heffernan’s inserts into ‘Anything Goes’, I put together the most simple formula I could. Ten weeks later we were on air.

On the night of ‘No Disco’’s first transmission, a small group of us met up in Cork to mark what was possibly the closest the county had come to a modern miracle since the statues moved down in Ballinspittle. It was an enormous achievement to actually get the thing on air, all the more so given that neither Dónal or myself had the first idea what we were doing. Cockiness and mindless enthusiasm were always only going to get us so far and, while we were teething, we were often shovelled onto air by a support cast of notables who, I am sure, found the whole set-up quite erratic. I’ve thanked the likes of Tom McSweeney, Olan O’Brien, Antóin O’Callaghan, Tom Bannon and Déirdre O’Grady in the past and I’m doing it again here now :- they rarely, if ever, feature in the ‘No Disco’ story. And yet in many respects, they are the first chapters of the ‘No Disco’ story.

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Between one thing and another, it was Marty Morrissey, now a well- known Gaelic Games broadcaster but then one of a number of young reporters billeted in RTÉ Radio Cork on Union Quay, who convinced Jurys Hotel on Western Road to allow us watch our debut programme go out on air from a vacant suite on their complex. The first video on the first programme was ‘Cannonball’ by The Breeders, but by the time we got to the ten minute Dead Can Dance segment, we’d lost the room. Marty barely made it past the opening sequence and, more an M.O.R. man than an A.R. Kane man, wasn’t entirely sure what he was seeing. We didn’t use credits at the end of the programme and, as the first hour wound down and we faded out into the closing RTÉ Cork logo, my friends and colleagues applauded politely and kindly. It was as if we’d been gathered in a courtroom and I’d just been acquitted of murder but found guilty of manslaughter. I wanted the mini-bar to open up and swallow me whole.

 

 

The really great things about ‘No Disco’ ultimately un-did it. Based outside of Dublin gave us a freedom and a licence to roam, more or less, as we wanted. We weren’t privvy to the carry-on in Montrose and I fancifully saw myself as a latter-day Wolfe Tone, a colonial outsider railing against the machine. Even though, on one level, my work was defined largely by that same machine.

I used to wonder what would have happened had senior RTÉ managers at the time had their way with ‘No Disco’ ? If, for instance, they had daily physical access to us ? Because after only four weeks on air, ‘No Disco’ was an issue ;- word filtered back to me that Dónal was a real concern, that the music policy was considered far too extreme and that ‘No Disco’ wasn’t really a broadcastable programme at all. But we held our ground – because, I guess, we could – put our heads down and just pedalled harder. I may not have always known what I was doing but I certainly knew what I wanted to do. And then The Irish Times came to the party.

Brian Boyd contributed a weekly column called ‘Hot Licks’ to the paper’s Friday morning arts and music coverage and, from very early on, was down enthusiastically with the series. Word seemed to be spreading, however slowly and, in the days before e-mail, we’d even received a trickle of correspondence from viewers by post. On one occasion the telephone in the office actually rang and a ‘fan’ was on the other end. We had other friends out there too, of course ;- Dónal Scannell was a fellow traveller and a loyal snout inside the belly of the beast in RTÉ while Áine Healy played a starring role as our administrative back-up in Dublin. Apart from Brian Boyd, we had other agents in the music pages too, all of whom sung our praises often and loudly. And it all helped ;- what ‘No Disco’ lacked in terms of audience numbers and branding support, it made up for with that rarest of commodities :- real credibility among a small cohort who could see beyond the obvious.

And Dónal Dineen takes the credit here. I first encountered him through Dónal Scannell, back when we were publishing a free, monthly music paper in Dublin called DropOut. We shared a Southern sensibility and a keen interest in the GAA :- we once spent seven consecutive nights crawling a range of Dublin’s flesh-pots for a feature called ‘It’s a Shame about Cabaret’ and were lucky to survive up in The Four Provinces in Ranelagh when we were turned on by a couple of young bucks from up the country somewhere.

Dónal was in the autumn of his club football career with his beloved Rathmore – he is a contemporary and clubmate of the former Kerry senior goalkeeper, Declan O’Keeffe, and our small production office would often resound with tales from the darker side of the dressing room. Years before Croke Park was re-developed and well before the advent of media boycotts, multiple sponsors, dieticians, head doctors and team flunkeys, Gaelic Games were hugely derided by some of the louder elements of the Dublin media set. Fine writers like Gerry McGovern were routinely dismissed because, with their ‘bog-ball’ and ‘stick-fighting’ they dared to be proud of what made them and maybe brought different values to the editorial tables. Dónal would have gladly swapped any number of Hot Press awards for an O’Donoghue Cup medal with Rathmore and that pursuit, for a time, was every bit as intense as they man himself and his long-running affair with sound.

It was during the course of a DropOut production weekend in a semi- detached house in Knocklyon that we first heard [and he became obsessed with] David Gray’s first album, ‘A Century Ends’, which had been submitted for review by one of the record companies. That was how humble the beginnings of that relationship were and it’s probably fair to say that the growth in David Gray’s popularity in Ireland owed, to a large degree, to the exposure he received on ‘No Disco’, where he was a mainstay. Over the course of the first eighteen months of the series, both David Gray and ‘No Disco’ found their feet, voice and audiences in tandem. And when Dónal Scannell brought Gray to Cork and Dublin for his first nervous live shows here, ‘No Disco’ was the primary driver for that.

 

 

It certainly wasn’t intentional and I didn’t really appreciate it at the time but, looking back now, the tone of the series – dislocated, informed, intense, regional, soft and considerate – was based entirely around Dónal’s personality. He’s by far the most reluctant and easily the most interesting ‘presenter’ I’ve worked with, most probably because he isn’t and never was a presenter in the first place. One of the many things that set him apart, and what disconcerted many of the ‘industry professionals’ who encountered him, was that he saw right through the medium and was absolutely discommoded by it. He never saw ‘No Disco’ as a stepping stone to a career in light entertainment but more of a stepping stone back into obscurity. He was everything he said he was and he had no side ;- he did what he did in the interests of quality music and, to that end, was always more emotionally comfortable and secure on radio, which was his real passion. And so I wasn’t overly surprised to see him unveiled alongside Eamonn Dunphy, Anne-Marie Hourihane and others as part of the first Radio Ireland line-up in 1997, where his late-night ‘Here Comes The Night’ programme was, for a number of years, an essential listen. My only surprise was that he managed to hang around there for so long.

Because there, as on ‘No Disco’, he really did give it all for the music he believed in, and maybe far too much sometimes. We’d routinely argue over set-lists for the show :- he brought the sophistication, the breath of reference and the smarts and I brought the noise and the pale indie shapes. His scripts would often sparkle ;- Dónal’s writing owed more to Con Houlihan than to Nick Kent and he’d agonise and pore over every line. One of his best print pieces was actually about Gaelic football, a gorgeous personal essay he did about Rathmore for the Munster Football Final programme in July, 1995. ‘The special sense of community that arises from the sharing of dreams is a precious part of the life of place’, he wrote. It could have doubled as one of his softly-voiced introductions to a new Stina Nordenstam release or a lost Red House Painters track.

Some of our production priorities were far less romantic, though. Our cameramen and sound recordists were, at least during the early years, actually scheduled onto the RTE News service in Cork and, as happened once or twice, we’d have to abandon or suspend a planned shoot in the event of a news story breaking. It was all very laissez-faire but Joe and Tony McCarthy, Tony Cournane, Paul O’Flynn and Brian O’Mahony gave us sterling service over the years, as did Dónal and Jim Wylde, whenever they were sprung from the Waterford bureau and pressed into service, dispatched to take care of ‘the mad shit in Cork’.

But it was a slow process and, throughout those early months, we were viewed with a combination of bafflement and suspicion, more to do with what we were trying to do than for who we were, I suspect. But once ‘No Disco’ settled, and once the first positive notices started to filter through, a real gang mentality grew up around the series and everyone felt far more secure in the boat. For those who sailed in her, it was a scenic and exotic passage in steerage class, even if it often felt like we were travelling without a compass.

We recorded Dónal’s pieces to camera on the top floor of the RTÉ Cork building every Monday night, working around the demands of the newsroom. Our location was a cold, breeze-blocked space that we’d often supplement with whatever odd props we could pinch from the children’s TV stash down-stairs. I spent ages one afternoon cutting the letters that comprised the words ‘No Disco’ from a load of old Styrofoam wrapping that had come with some piece of technical kit installed in another part of the building. We got ferocious mileage from those self- standing pieces but my hands were welted for weeks afterwards.

But the more established we became, the more confident we grew and we soon reached a point where we didn’t have to explain or introduce ourselves to bands, handlers or publicists, which was another huge leap forwards. Paul Weller, then in the early stages of an unexpected career revival after years in the sidings, requested a date with us and I remember heading out nervously one Sunday evening to interview him after he’d finished a sound-check in The City Hall. He could be a spiky character at the best of times but I was assured that he liked the cut of the programme and had watched a couple of episodes ;- so much so that he sang like a canary and was happy to keep going way beyond the allotted half-hour. It was his father, who was also his manager, who arrived into the posh seats and wrapped us up so they could actually open the main doors and start getting folk into the hall.

 

 

By the start of the second series, the programme scored a rare audience with Lou Reed in Paris, which we gratefully accepted and during which Dónal and his interviewee developed a serious rapport, touching on art, design and photography as they ate, in real detail, into aspects of Reed’s career. It is highly unlikely that, on that entire promotional campaign in support of ‘Set The Twilight Reeling’, Reed encountered anything as far- ranging and informed as the hour he spent with our boy. But by then we’d already done the likes of Suede, St. Etienne, David Gray, Pavement, Kristin Hersh and, most memorably, David Gedge from The Wedding Present, who took the short walk across from Sir Henry’s to talk to us in Father Mathew Street. And we’d picked up a few pointers – and no few brownie points – along the way.

As well as knocking off interviews with anyone of note – and many of no note whatsoever – who came our way, we also began to dabble with live, stripped back ‘sessions’, initially with a number of largely Dublin- based acts who’d travel to Cork for the day and endure us as we’d shoot multiple takes for editing later. Edwyn Collins did a gorgeous two- song set for us upstairs in The Old Oak one afternoon, performing ‘Low Expectations’ and ‘Gorgeous George’ from his comeback Setanta album, while we also recorded in The Triskel with Martin Stephenson, The Firkin Crane with The Divine Comedy and The CAT Club with The Revenants. Dónal had already introduced me to the Kerry singer-songwriter, John Hegarty, and we did a terrific session with him, also in The Triskel, that yielded a golden version of ‘Bonfire Night’, a beautiful song we both adored and which sat perfectly with our own personal sensibilities. I’ve covered this aspect of the series in a previous post about The Divine Comedy, available here.

 

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We wrapped up ‘No Disco’’s first season with a live benefit concert, in support of the Cork Aids Alliance, up in Nancy Spain’s on Barrack Street on May 17th, 1994. A local PR company run by Jean Kearney and Maura O’Keeffe had come to me with the suggestion, adamant that the ‘No Disco’ name was enough to carry a show like this, and wanted to guage our interest. I never once thought that we’d ram Nancy’s on a Sunday night with a bill that comprised, basically, of our friends – Engine Alley, Blink, Sack, LMNO Pelican and Treehouse – all of whom put themselves out on our behalf and never requested a single bean. Jim Carroll spun discs long into the night, Dónal did a short set, said a few words from the stage and was basically molested when he wandered through the venue. It was into the small hours when we cleared the hall, pulled down the P.A. and got the visiting bands back safely on the road and, as I made the short journey down-hill, home to my flat on Sullivan’s Quay, I wondered if ‘No Disco’ would be returning for a second series ?

I needn’t have worried. Not only had ‘No Disco’ found and developed an audience, the reviews and the general critical reaction gave us a bit more leeway in our discussions with RTÉ. We’d gotten onto air, stayed there and, by so doing, won friends in unlikely places. So by the time I checked out of the series for good, ‘No Disco’ was on it’s way. But it was Rory Cobbe and Dónal who developed the breath and the scope of the series beyond all recognition, putting flesh on what was still a very crudely formed skeleton. The programme became far broader in tone and in content, and I suspect that Rory enabled Dónal in ways which I never could have done and, by the third series, ‘No Disco’ had really found it’s meter.

I’ve seen Dónal a handful of times in the twenty years since we soldiered so intensely and intently together in Cork. We last spoke when I talked him into doing the voice-over on Ross Whitaker’s beautiful documentary film, ‘When Ali Came To Ireland’, and I was thrilled skinny when he agreed to be involved. Moreso again when I saw the final cut and heard that voice back on screen one more time. I’m not sure when we’ll meet again – given our recent record it’s unlikely to be any time soon – but, when eventually we do, we’ll talk about Gaelic football, enquire after our respective families and recall an old in-joke about Paul Weller headbands.

And then one of us will mention ‘Asleep In The Back’ by Elbow or ‘The Idiots’ by Republic of Loose or ‘Your Ghost’ by Kristin Hersh and we’ll lose ourselves for a moment because, as much as some things change, other things never change at all.

 

THE DIVINE COMEDY

 

As I recently re-watched The Divine Comedy’s terrific 2004 show, recorded live at London’s Palladium Theatre, my mind was cast way back to another far more intimate but no less powerful encounter with Neil Hannon.

 

I had been aware of The Divine Comedy from the get go. My friend, Keith Cullen, had issued their 1990 mini-album, ‘Fanfare For The Comic Muse’, on his fledgling Setanta imprint and, as part of that affair, had moved the then three-piece from Enniskillen in County Fermanagh to a flat in North London. That apartment was owned by John O’Neill of The Undertones who had produced the seven-tracker and who was also recording for Setanta under the band name, Rare.

 

Written by Neil Hannon, who sang and played all of the guitars, the record also featured John McCullagh and Kevin Traynor on bass and drums respectively. The Divine Comedy had first been recommended to Setanta by Louise Trehy, a Dublin musician who later recorded for 4AD as half of the band, Swallow .

 

 

‘Fanfare For The Comic Muse’ captures a clever young songwriter with no little ambition, borrowing from a standard frame of indie reference, most notably the British shoe-gaze scene led by Ride. The Divine Comedy were thinking big – the title of the record being a case in point – and notwithstanding the band’s circumstances in their hovel in Tottenham – Neil had set the bar high.

 

Initially at least, the band struggled to generate any real interest in London and went largely un-noticed by the music press who, instead, rowed in behind their Setanta label-mates, Dublin’s Into Paradise. To provide the band with more heft, The Divine Comedy briefly expanded it’s ranks by adding a friend of Neil’s, John Allen, as lead vocalist, allowing the song-writer more scope to drive the band on from behind his guitar. I saw them give a workmanlike performance at The Borderline in London at this time, opening for Toasted Heretic who, by then, were commanding plenty of interest themselves, particularly from the inkies. But The Divine Comedy set was all very shapeless and dour and, while the excellent ‘Europop’ E.P. [1992] was certainly a meatier and more focussed affair, the band imploded in North London shortly afterwards. Neil opted to go it alone and de-camped back to his parents’ house in County Fermanagh.

 

It was during the late Autumn of 1992 that Setanta started to receive the first flashes of what was to subsequently become the popular Divine Comedy sound. Neil had been busy back in Northern Ireland and had delivered us a suite of pretty ace but crudely formed songs on tape , all of which he’d written, played and produced himself on a small portable studio. Even at this stage, there was a real magic about some of the songs.

 

These would, of course, provide the spine to, ‘Liberation’, the aptly titled first full Divine Comedy album, released by Setanta in August, 1993 and the sound of a songwriter finally finding his voice after a false start. Recorded with the engineer Darren Allison, who also contributed drums, the record revealed a serious change in mood and tone. The original rhythm section had been replaced by a number of string players and Neil had swapped his indie-fringe for a tighter cut and a smart collar-and-tie finish. The whole thing had been recorded on a typical Setanta shoestring.

 

Immediately prior to the release of ‘Liberation’, I too had changed direction and was now busy back in Cork, working on a national television series I’d devised. No Disco’ was pitched as a late-night alternative music show for RTÉ Two, the first thrust of a central RTÉ strategy to produce more content from outside of  Dublin. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I’d actually based the series on the founding principles of Setanta Records ;- no money, no facilities, no embarrassment and plenty of neck. The origins and early days of the ‘No Disco’ series have never really been properly documented and I’ll return to this in a more substantial future post.

 

Essentially, ‘No Disco’ was cheap and cheerful television, a simple cut-and-paste of mildly left-field music videos with the odd interview [some of them very odd] and pulled together by the weekly proselytising of it’s presenter, Dónal Dineen. The first episode aired in September, 1993, to the sound of huge indifference and to the astonishment of those who had worked on it. But as soon as we found our feet and established ourselves in the margins of the RTÉ Two schedules, we’d started to get cockier and more ambitious.

 

To that end, we’d occasionally wander out from our bunkered existence at the studios in Father Mathew Street to tape, randomly enough, live acoustic performances from certain acts. The criteria were simple enough :- the music had to sit easily with Dónal and myself and the bands had to be prepared to deal with some of the vagaries of our existence as a television series by stealth, operating with minimal amounts of everything. It was rough and it was ready and we were based in Cork.

 

Keith Cullen had mailed me a pre-release of ‘Liberation’ on cassette and I couldn’t believe how good it was. Neither could I believe how far Neil had developed – and how quickly – since he’d left London. Yes, his songs had always had grand designs but he’d now re-drawn his foundations and the sound was far more rounded, mature and compelling as a result. Consequently, The Divine Comedy became an obvious early target for ‘No Disco’ and we were anxious to feature them as part of the brainwash.

 

In the absence of any video material – Setanta Records was run from a squat in Camberwell and barely had enough money to record its bands – we decided to tape a two-song Divine Comedy acoustic performance instead. And Neil’s gorgeous renditions of ‘Three Sisters’ and ‘Lucy’ – both among the many stellar songs on ‘Liberation’ – featured regularly on the ‘No Disco’ playlists throughout.

 

The session took us about two hours to record and involved around six hours work in all. It was shot on the spartan, curtained stage at The Firkin Crane building on the Northside of Cork city, a beautiful dance studio and theatre in the shadow of Shandon, the iconic landmark. As well as the two songs, we also knocked out a long-ish interview with Neil. All of us were effusive in our praise for ‘Liberation’.

 

Tony McCarthy was the cameraman who captured the performance on standard Betacam tape, Paul O’Flynn was the sound recordist and, on this occasion, we’d hired the added help of Tony Healy, a local musician who provided the heavy duty sound equipment we used on all of these sessions.

 

Because we were working on the cheap, I’d also hired an acoustic guitar locally so that Neil didn’t incur additional flight charges. He played this guitar for the first time as we were setting up in the venue.

 

We’d put him up in my family’s house in Blackpool the previous night, where he charmed my mother, who loves her music and who remains a staunch supporter of Neil’s to this day. Whenever I hear The Divine Comedy’s ‘Mother Dear’ [from the ‘Victory For The Comic Muse’ album], I think that the song could easily be  about my own mother’s absolute regard for her young guest all of those years previously. It isn’t, but hey …

 

‘No Disco’ never had the budget  to employ a production runner, to order taxis or to deal with the day-to-day practicalities of running sessions like these. And so I’d routinely be on hand to lug sound gear into venues, do a run for lunchtime sandwiches and, when required, bum lifts off of my father, who regularly ran  musicians around Cork city and got them back on the train home. It was, of course, no way to run a television programme but then, in our heads at least, ’No Disco’ wasn’t a television programme at all. It was, to borrow popular current vernacular, a weekly Ted Talk :- an address of genuine inspiration to the nation.

 

On the day of the Firkin Crane session, Neil performed both songs at least three times each. Once we had captured the master sound recording – and once Neil was happy with what he had heard – we did a couple of other takes on the song from alternative angles. When we got into the edit with Antóin O’Callaghan [no relation] we decided, where possible, to keep the performances on one single shot. This was out of character with much of what was going on in music television at this time. Indeed, it’s very rare these days to see any sort of pans, zooms and tilts on location-based television output. But again, in the hands of a skilled operator, the old ways can often be the only ways. And we went for it.

 

The only real concession we made in the edit was in removing all of the colour from the clip, for no other reason than we wanted those sessions to have a different look and feel to the rest of the programme. Among some of the other acoustic room performances we shot during the first year of the programme were a handful of ace tracks by The Harvest Ministers recorded in The Triskel Arts Centre, a cracking set by The Revenants in The CAT Club and a pretty special two-song show by Edwyn Collins, put to tape upstairs in The Old Oak, during which he performed ‘Low Expectations’ and ‘Gorgeous George’ from the Setanta album of the same name.

 

The Divine Comedy remained one of the staples of the ‘No Disco’ play-lists for many years thereafter. Over the following twelve months we also cobbled together a pretty woeful time-lapse video for ‘Tonight We Fly’ [from the band’s 1994 album, ‘Promenade’] from footage of a sun-down that one of Neil’s friends had sent us from London. And, one memorable Sunday afternoon, the directors Eamonn Crudden and Eamonn Doyle hired an old-school bicycle from a shop in Dillon’s Cross and shot a handful of Super 8 reels of my late friend, Philip  Kennedy, as he peddled around Cork. The personal highlight of that shoot occurred when we were asked to leave the grounds of The Cork Cricket Club by some local toff after we’d arrived, un-announced, up the avenue, on foot and on wheels, wielding a funny looking camera.

 

We used that footage to accompany ‘The Summerhouse’, another track from ‘Promenade’, which myself and Donal really liked and which, again, we just felt needed to be heard.

 

It was the pair of us, I guess, just taking care of business.