Toasted Heretic

THE SAWDOCTORS: ACTING THE SHAM

Ah, revisionism and nostalgia: you’d want to be careful when that pair collide. Last Monday, the Irish Times newspaper carried a fine, first person memoir by Conor Pope to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the release of The Sawdoctors’ second single, ‘I Useta Lover’, one of the more distinctive Irish pop songs of the 1990s and one of the country’s biggest-selling singles ever. As such, it’s an anniversary worth noting: there was a time when there was no escaping The Sawdoctors who, in the great traditions of popular music, captured a moment and legged it until they ran out of puff and were lapped by fresher legs. 

‘I Useta Lover’ used a series of lyrical flourishes and tropes that would quickly come to characterise the band and that were more in keeping with the thematic heart of the first wave of Irish showbands than the 1980s indie set. And punters of all hues lapped them up with gusto.   

Conor Pope tells us of his own loose connection to The Sawdoctors and self-deprecatingly plays down his stint in a rival Galway-based rock outfit, describing the pain he felt – and many others of us, I can assure him – as The Sawdoctors defied the odds and took flight. Thirty years older, the writer has now changed his tune: ‘Never would I have guessed back then that the song would be as timeless as it has turned out … or that I would still be able to sing it [‘I Useta Lover’] without missing a word or a beat’. 

I never gave The Sawdoctors the time of day back then and don’t intend to revise my views on them now. I’m wary of the seductive pull of nostalgia, and all the more so on a blog like this that seldom, if ever, looks forward. But in accurately assessing the group’s legacy, an additional pass may be no harm.    

The Sawdoctors gave a voice, as the Irish Times piece rightfully claims, to ‘what it was like to live in the west of Ireland in the 1980s and early 1990s’. On a most basic level, several of the band’s more powerful songs are located there, and as many again are scattered with local slang, situations and parochial soap operas. But The Sawdoctors didn’t have exclusive editorial ownership on the vagaries of life for those then living outside of Dublin, especially in small towns. Plenty of other groups were also at it but just chose to reflect those lives in different ways. 

Indeed, as The Sawdoctors were first coming to national prominence, so too was a cohort of other ambitious young bands from cities and towns all over Ireland. Conor refers to one of them, another Galway group, Toasted Heretic, in his piece, but there were many more in the same boat too. Therapy?, The Frank and Walters, The Sultans of Ping, The Cranberries, The Would-Bes, Engine Alley, The Divine Comedy and Cuckoo are among the best known: it would be wrong to think they weren’t dipping into their own experiences in Larne, Cork, Limerick, Kingscourt, Kilkenny, Enniskillen and Derry to inform their material. 

What set The Sawdoctors apart was how they presented. They were horny young bucks sniggering in the pews at mass while, in Therapy?’s orbit, James Joyce was fucking someone’s sister. Like The Frank and Walters, they enjoyed pranks and practical jokes but, while the Cork band captured the spirit of The Monkees, The Sawdoctors looked to the home-made, cardboard comedy of ‘Tops of The Towns’ instead, nudging-and-winking away while others were having it off goodo and happy to tell the world as much. ‘The sun goes down on Galway Bay’, sang Toasted Heretic’s Julian Gough. ‘The daughter goes down on me’.  

The Sawdoctors divided opinion with an intensity I hadn’t seen before on the domestic beat. In hindsight, this was rooted far less in the music – more perspiration than inspiration, in my view – and way more in a broader cultural conversation. In their donkey jackets and everyman duds, and with their call-and-response choruses and colloquial language, The Sawdoctors were at the heart of a debate about identity.  

‘Designer bogmen’, was how the late Dublin-born music journalist, George Byrne, once described The Sawdoctors and, his provocative choice of language notwithstanding, he had a point. I always thought that the ordinariness that was fundamental to their appeal was as carefully studied in it’s own right as any of U2’s various guises, before them or after them. In Ollie Jennings, their manager, they had as formidable an operator in the cockpit as Paul McGuinness himself in his pomp. A founder of the Galway Arts Festival, which took place for the first time in 1978, Jennings was an experienced and wily hand who could read the mood in a room better than most. And he was fiercely protective of his charges, too: The Sawdoctors took plenty of flack but were well able to defend their territory. Like those doughty corner backs they immortalised in song, they knew how to pull hard and late.  

They boasted no outward pretensions and only struck poses and shapes when they were sending themselves up, which was often. The cover of the band’s debut album, ‘If This is Rock ‘N’ Roll I Want My Old Job Back’, features the fathers of the various band members, legs akimbo, replete in leather jackets and with guitars cocked: it was the closest the band got to cool. Instead, like the comedian Pat Shortt, they reported for duty as they were: decent, everyday shams dealing with everyday situations in simple, uncomplicated language. And so when many of those who found comfort in the band’s live shows – particularly in the Irish enclaves in London, Glasgow, New York and Boston – looked stage wards, they often saw themselves, and their values, reflected back at them. 

There they were, perennial underdogs from the sticks, battling the  music industry, the media and the pomp and ceremony of the big city. Ultimately, channelling the influential Catholic sociologists, Father Harry Bohan and Father Micheál Mac Gréil, The Sawdoctors were fighting to protect the soul of rural Ireland in words, deeds and big choruses.

To be fair, someone had to. During the late 1980s and early 90s, a lot of the conversation about identity, particularly from the Dublin-based commentariat, was woefully one-dimensional. The Sawdoctors, to their credit, saw a gap in the hedge, provided an alternative frame of reference and set out their stall. In this respect, they followed a road also travelled by the Reid brothers from Leith, in Scotland who, as The Proclaimers, proudly told similar tales in thick accents. On that road, where Hot Press magazine saw ‘stick-fighters’ and ‘bog-ballers’, The Sawdoctors instead saw legends, heroes and feats of valour. So much so that, like The Smiths, with whom they have far more in common than one might imagine, they brought swathes of the voiceless in with them from the margins.

It’s a pity, then, that the music itself was so spectacularly lumpy and devoid of imagination. Dress it up all you like, but there isn’t really a lot of distance between ‘Clare Island’ and, say, Liam Reilly’s emigration dirge, ‘The Flight of Earls’. And although ‘To Win Just Once’ might indeed sound visionary and prescient after a feed of porter on the night of an unexpected Intermediate championship victory, it sounds much more mundane in the cold light of morning. 

In the wake of Conor’s piece, I saw a reference on-line to the ‘unique genius’ of The Sawdoctors. Early morning over-enthusiasm aside, the reality is that The Sawdoctors weren’t half as unique as we think. And genius ? Hardly. What is indisputable, though, is that, for many years, they were very, very popular and, perhaps, inside the warm wrap of nostalgia and revisionism, it’s just too easy to get carried away ?

To my mind, the band had a far greater impact off the stage than on it or on record. Like the great Irish showbands, The Royal before them and Westlife after them, their popularity facilitated the mass congregation of young men and women and, in the best traditions of popular entertainment, made them feel, if not always better, then certainly as if they were a part of something special, however fleetingly. Their songs – who among you can name five or more ? – just sound-tracked that communion. 

They were at the peak of their powers, I think, during the first three Féile festivals that took place in Semple Stadium, Thurles, between 1990 and 1992, and over the course of which they made their way from the bottom of the bill to the top. Those Féile events are as much the story of The Sawdoctors as anyone else and, in Thurles, they found a perfect platform. A small town in the middle of Ireland, the closure of the sugar factory in Thurles in the late eighties deprived it of a primary source of  local employment. On Liberty Square, the Gaelic Athletic Association was founded at a meeting in Hayes’ Hotel, in November, 1884, and Semple Stadium itself has long witnessed acts of spectacular skill and heroism performed by the best hurlers and footballers in the history of the national games. Féile was where The Sawdoctors walked into one of their own songs.  

Alongside ‘Celebrate’ by An Emotional Fish, ‘Parachute’ by Something Happens, The Stunning’s ‘Brewing Up A Storm’ and The Sultans of Ping FC’s ‘Where’s Me Jumper ?’, ‘I Useta Lover’ was one of a number of alternative national anthems played during The Trip to Tipp. To which hordes of giddy youngsters shot to attention, paid their respects and then afterwards ate the faces off of one another.

And maybe there’s a genius in there somewhere ? Or maybe, like Brendan Bowyer before them and Hozier long after, The Sawdoctors were just a popular turn who, deliberately or otherwise, found a moment when they were in synch with the mood of the nation. In the Pantheon of Irish popular music, however, The Sawdoctors – and ‘I Useta Lover’ – are queuing on the outside, well down the stand-by list.   

BRILLIANT TREES LIVE IN DUBLIN, 2016

 

Twenty years ago, when Brilliant Trees were hot to trot, good to go and had just released their formidable debut album, ‘Friday Night’, Dublin were reigning All-Ireland senior football champions and Charlie Redmond, of Erin’s Isle and East Finglas, finally had his just reward. If Jason Sherlock had taken the sport by the throat with a drop of his callow shoulder, a tearaway’s slalom and a poacher’s eye to become Gaelic football’s most sellable asset, Redmond was Dublin’s battle-worn pillager, a rounded foil to the swagger of youth, the static in the flow.

 

They celebrated that 1995 All-Ireland win long and hard out in West Dublin. The Erin’s Isle club, located in deepest Finglas, also provided Mick Deegan and Keith Barr to the spine of that side ;- like Redmond, they were, as you’d expect, cut from durable stuff, seldom beaten. And so it’s apt that, on a night when the city centre is as vibrant as I’ve ever seen it on the eve of an All-Ireland final – and during another period marked by the dominance of a Dublin side playing cavalier football  – that Brilliant Trees have re-marshalled their forces and, as they used to do routinely over the years, taken over a small part of town. Theirs has always been a loud and partisan travelling support and, years since they last assembled so formally anywhere, they’re in from the suburbs and out once again in numbers tonight.

 

I’ve written previously about Brilliant Trees and about how, never too showy or overly complicated, they were such a consistent, classy and, in their own way, unusual presence around a scene that burst into life in Ireland’s regions after the World Cup in 1990 and that soon caught fire elsewhere. Physically lean, politically sussed and as principled as would allow, Brilliant Trees weren’t at all out of place on the Cork Rock bill at Sir Henry’s in 1991 where they shared a standing with the likes of The Frank And Walters, The Cranberries, Therapy?, Toasted Heretic, The I.R.S., Lir and The Sultans of Ping. And while it possibly took them longer to find their sea-legs and to realise the full range of their gift, their two albums, 1996’s ‘Friday Night’ and 2000’s ‘Wake Up And Dream’, rank as two of the purest – if slow-burning – Irish pop records of the period. Even if, in keeping with much of the rest of their story, they rarely feature in histories and lists, even those compiled in – and about – their own backyards.

 

Throughout their various exiles, I always felt that The Trees had plenty of business left unfinished and much left unsaid. In direct knock-out, the scoring systems just didn’t suit their style which, casually and at times naively, blended orthodox with southpaw. Many other, far lesser contenders from that period seemed to just glide the canvas a bit easier, skipping in and out of trouble, cross-punching a bit more readily. And there’s only so far and so wide a positive outward face will stretch when it dawns that the music industry is far more about the vagaries and the unreliability of the industry and far less about the regular detonation of the music. So little wonder then that, after one pointless blow-to- the- head too many, Brilliant Trees, however reluctantly, heeded the pleading from their corner and, heads bowed, walked away from the ring.

 

 

On the not inconsiderable matter of winning and winners, you’ll often hear sports psychologists mention how some of the most remarkable victors from across all walks of life are often utterly unknown. About how, away from the numbers and the footlights, personal victories are routinely achieved in all sorts of conditions and against all manner of difficulty, often determined by exceptional individual circumstance. And so, simply by walking on and out in front of a sold-out Grand Social crowd, comprised largely of the familiar faces of long-time friends, acquaintances and ultras, Brilliant Trees have already nailed it. With a meaty set pulled largely from the two albums and popped at the turn by a track or two from a new, forthcoming record, they sound as familiar, welcome and warm as they did during their first flush. Augmented by a steel rod in their backbone – Dave Morrissey on keys, Tony Brerton on drums and, for a magical fifteen minutes in the middle order, Ciarán Kavanagh on guitar – it’s re-assuring to see them with real weight on. While Alan, Tony and Sid look as lean and as fit as they did in their early publicity shots from decades ago, their sound, as you’d maybe expect, has wintered well, way more full-bodied.  Musically, they’re packing a middle-aged spread and they’re looking terrific on it.

 

From the reluctant shuffle of the opener, ‘Like You A Lot, Love You A Little’ to the down-beat closer, ‘Home’, and in around the familiar, powerful verges of a canon in which  ‘Take Me Away’, ‘Talent’, ‘Let It All Go’, ‘Heartstrings’, ‘Who Hurts Most’ and ‘In Your Dreams’ sound Especially ageless, The Trees know that now, definitively, they can park their anxieties. There was a time tonight when, with Ciarán adding a third guitar, they replicated the current Trash Can Sinatras line-up in tone and style as well as in physical heft. And while the more direct, less subtle end of the catalogue nods to far more familiar influences – The Smiths, Ride, Blur – the current single, ‘I Know, I Know’ is in far less of a hurry and, smooth and unforced, suggests that, what’s coming down the line could yet be the most beguiling phase of of what’s been a long and colourful journey.

 

 

And so, more confidently on their own terms than ever previously, Brilliant Trees are back. But for how long and for how far, who knows ? And does it matter ? No. The forthcoming record will maintain their momentum and give them a fresh wind, for sure. But tonight its enough to simply see them go for it so instinctively, taking the first, nervy step back out onto the dancefloor. Re-born, renewed.

 

 

CRYSTAL, FROM CORK

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Picture courtesy Siobhan O’Mahony

 

Crystal were one of Alan Murphy’s outfits, in essence a more formed and focused version of his previous band, The How And Why Insects, with his girlfriend, Lisa, added on vocals and Kieran Curtin replacing Anthony Murray on guitar. They were one of a number of bands from the Turner’s Cross/Capwell/Glasheen Road side of Cork City, via Coláiste Chriost Rí, but who, drummer Keri Jones apart, had little else in common with their peers, notably Censored Vision and Serengeti Long Walk.

With Brian Quigley [bass] completing the line-up, they were easily the most academically qualified band to emerge in Cork as the eighties ground to a close. But they were keen students of classic and alternative sounds too ;- Alan, especially, had a far-ranging frame of reference that stretched back to the classics and forward into the contemporary margins. And, once Lisa integrated more fully into the line-up, Crystal developed a sinewy – but no less sparkly – guitar-pop sound. So much to that, for a while, I genuinely thought they had enough about them to really kiss the sun.

But they never received the credit their ambition warranted, especially around Cork, and their live shows were often pock-marked by poor sound and indifference from audiences. But Crystal, with a rich depth of field, a real attitude about them, and swarthy good looks, were well able to hold their own in any company and, for a number of years were prominent, but never over-bearingly so, on the local circuit.

Some of the band later embarked, inevitably enough, onto careers in full-time academica, after which Alan and Lisa re-grouped, re-charged and re-modelled themselves as Starchild, a far more ambient and considered outlet for Murphy’s songs.

But not before, in August, 1991, I gave them this review in Melody Maker magazine, capturing them at their peak, live in The Shelter on Tuckey Street. At the time, Tuam band The Sawdoctors and raggle-taggle period Waterboys dominated the general conversation but, lurking beneath them, a fresh wave of excellent, alternative regional acts had taken their starter’s orders and already had the mainstream squarely in their cross-hairs. And with Crystal among them, I thought.

And so, with the game on, I stepped out to bat and, not for the first or the last time, gave a decent, emerging band, the kiss of death.

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Picture courtesy of Siobhan O’Mahony

Crystal, (The Shelter, Cork)

Crystal are a million miles away from raggle-taggle and they couldn’t care less for sub-generic jangle guitar pop. Mention The Sawdoctors to them and, like Woody Allen on love and life, they’ll internalise. Grow tumours. They’re resolutely hip. Essential. And they’re completely un-Irish, rather like Toasted Heretic and Therapy? and The Cranberries and The Frank And Walters, I guess.

Crystal are indie-kids with style and attitude and looks. They’ve missed all of ‘Bringing It All Back Home’, and the repeats too, because they’ve been too busy listening to My Bloody Valentine and R.E.M. and The Who. They’ve just fallen for ‘Pet Sounds’ and ‘Revolver’ and ‘Rubber Soul’ and they make some of the most beautiful noise-pop in, well, months.

Tonight in this wonderful little pop hut, Crystal are like a whale out of water. Their comic-culture upbringing, their style, their attitude, their complete disdain for anything remotely linked to Irish pop actually confuses tonight’s pop kids. Songs like ‘Forbidden’ and ‘Touch The Sky’ are murmur-pop songs that we can actually hear. And hum. And remember tomorrow. And then there are three-minute rant-and-rave pop songs like the perfectly-formed ‘Too Late’ and the head-spinning,body-line bounce of ‘Free’.

There’s Lisa’s voice ;- a travelling companion in first class for Dolores Cranberries’. There’s her looks. There’s Brian’s top-heavy bass guitar and a drummer on loan from Anthrax. It’s a confusing little bag. Like Fatima Mansions, if you like.

Crystal might well be a product of their environment, but that patch is well away from here. That is where they’ll stand or fall. The only certainly is that, like My Bloody Valentine, they’ll never be seen as an Irish band. Because they’re not.

 

TOASTED SPECIAL

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, some of the smartest and freshest new bands in Ireland emerged far from the Dublin archdiocese and, in many cases, in direct defiance of it’s strictures. Zesty acts like Therapy ?, The Frank And Walters, The Cranberries, Engine Alley, They Do It With Mirrors, The I.R.S. and The Sultans Of Ping F.C. were among the most prominent of this number who, spotting many of the lifeguards off on the free beer, went head-first into the deep end and free-styled through the lengths. And the quality and regional spread of the line-up that played the Cork Rock event at Sir Henry’s in June, 1991, reflects just how urgent some of the music from that period was.

Not to be out-done by the locals, Toasted Heretic played a mighty, swaggering set that weekend and, as I wrote in my Hot Press review at the time, left a real impression ;- they were cut apart from the pack on many levels but, from their base in Galway, the extent of their ingenuity really gave them an edge. They were the first emerging Irish band I’d encountered who had such a clear sense of their own worth – Power Of Dreams would later be another – and they were unrelentingly stubborn with it. Most of what they did was very strictly on their own terms and often, I think, this just intimidated people.

Few bands so absolutely divided opinion among Ireland’s indie-loving set quite like Toasted Heretic did during the years between 1988 and 1994 and the source of much of that disdain was Julian Gough, the band’s singer and lyricist who, with his fey ways and lethal gob, refused to engage with fools. At least one London-based record company boss had Julian’s contact details filed in his personal organiser under ‘Julian Cockhead’ and this just made me love them even more.

Boasting, among their meaty catalogue, the greatest New Year song of all time – ‘Here Comes The New Year’ [‘Here comes the new year, oh no, not again. I’ve been playing ‘Ziggy’ with my friends’], Toasted Heretic were the first band in my eye-line who convinced me that, in an industry that was quietly evolving, everything and anything was possible. If, using a primitive four-track recorder in a student garret in Galway city, they could produce a record as beguiling as ‘Songs For Swinging Celibates’, then I really wanted what they were having. It was their self-sufficiency that showed many of us the way and the light and I wouldn’t have been half as confident about The Frank And Walters, for instance, if Toasted Heretic hadn’t tested the ground a couple of years earlier. And, when it came to setting up the ‘No Disco’ series in 1993 – as is referenced in detail here – I took many of my cues from their cavalier sense of adventure.

Far from being an impediment, being located away from Dublin gave Toasted Heretic a real freedom ;- removed from the distraction, they efficiently went about their business from under the radar and, on those occasions when they did leave their base in Galway, dealt exclusively in shock and awe. But while they happily skirted the fringes – and routinely reminded you they did – they also craved the bullseye. Julian certainly wanted it all – it was pointless to do otherwise, wasn’t it ? – and I don’t think I ever saw them as comfortable in a live setting as I did when they performed at Semple Stadium in Thurles during the Féile festival in 1992. Born in London to parents from Tipperary this, seven years after U2 in Croke Park, was Julian’s own ‘sort of homecoming’. And, for the occasion, the band played an ace set in the afternoon heat, the singer in his element on the large stage, flailing in an out-size tee-shirt and an ermine jacket, swinging from the trussing, baiting the young pups and delinquents up-front. They closed their short set with ‘You Can Always Go Home’, one of the stand-outs from their second album, ‘Charm And Arrogance’ and, later that evening, this song had its own resonances backstage. After cutting loose on some of the lackeys, liggers and flunkeys in the hospitality area, Julian was muscled out of the stadium by the site security. But he’d made his point and secured his headlines ;- ;- Semple just wasn’t ready enough for him.

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Image courtesy of Maurice Horan

And few were ever better at making their point. Toasted Heretic took their pop music very, very seriously but, just as importantly, Julian’s sharp tongue and keen eye gave them a wit and a curve that was lacking in many of their peers. Humour was one of a number of traits they shared with The Smiths, another fundamentally dis-located group who, by digging for gold under the kitchen sink, found sparkle – and the odd gag – in the everyday, the mundane and the humdrum. There was whimsy, bile and a host of fine one and two-liners at the heart of most of Julian’s songs ;- ‘He’s obsessed with trying to get his end away’, one RTÉ radio producer remarked to me during their set at Cork Rock. But there was always, I felt, much more side to Toasted Heretic than standard indie shapes and their ‘songs about sex, drugs and Nabokov and the commodification of art’*.

For one, alongside other Galway bands like The Swinging Swine and The Little Fish, they were the very antithesis of The Sawdoctors, another independent-minded and self-sufficient Western-located outfit once described memorably by the late George Byrne as ‘designer bogmen’. While The Sawdoctors found favour with the mainstream, enjoyed Gay Byrne’s imprimatur and only ever took the stage at Féile after tea-time, Toasted Heretic sought their jollies elsewhere. Melody Maker’s Andrew Mueller claimed they were ‘a brandy Alexander with a cherry on top’ but, as The Sawdoctors were serving soft-core, stag-party fodder to order and saucily remarking on ‘the glory of her ass’, Julian had more something more adult in mind. From his window in ‘the bay city’, he watched the sun go down on Galway Bay as ‘the daughter goes down on me’.

 

That song, ‘Galway Bay’, features on ‘Songs For Swinging Celibates’, the band’s cassette-only debut, released and distributed via Toasted Heretic’s own imprint, Bananafish Records, in 1988. In production terms, ‘Celibates’ is a serious achievement and the lo-fi, no frills, no cost approach masks a real ambition beneath. Toasted Heretic were one of the only bands I met who ever cited Momus, the left-field and often impenetrable Scottish songwriter, as an influence. And I can recall several conversations over the years with Neil Farrell, the band’s drummer and the brains behind it’s recording operation, about the potential of sequencers and digital technology. And this at a time when many homes in Ireland were still on long lists, waiting to have domestic telephones installed.

The fact that Toasted Heretic were perpetually broke never once stunted them. In fact it was the penury, you thought, that often drove them onwards, forcing them to live on their wits, often literally singing for their suppers. ‘Produced by accident’, they claimed – being unusually humble – on the hand-scrawled liner notes on ‘Songs For Swinging Celibates’. But they were ingenious with it too and, like another of my favourite performers, David Donoghue of The Floors, you’d have your work cut out keeping up with them. They borrowed favours widely and always knew someone just as talented as themselves who did graphic design, directed low-budget videos, took terrific photographs or made arresting posters. And for all Julian’s bookishness – he read widely, keenly and always remembered the detail – there was a ferocious pragmatism to him, as there always was with the rest of the band.

With their canon of smart pop songs, written mostly by Neil and Declan Collins and topped by Julian’s words [‘singing and posing’], they touched the skies for a number of years. As with many of their contemporaries, the band found a pair of early champions in RTÉ Radio 2 and Dave Fanning’s Rock Show, produced by Ian Wilson, played ‘Songs For Swinging Celibates’, to within an inch of it’s life. From that release, ‘Sodom Tonight’ is probably the best known of the earliest material and Fanning, in particular, seemed to get a real kick from it’s chorus ;- ‘Do we have to spend tomorrow in Gomorrah, well baby, Sodom tonight’.

But while Julian was clearly the band’s focal point, the band’s sound was styled by Declan Collins, from whom nothing much was ever heard apart from the quite remarkable sound he produced from his guitars. In his white rubber dollies, slacks and v-neck jumpers, he looked utterly unlikely and yet, beyond the curtain, Declan – and Neil – made Toasted Heretic hum. Practically every single one of their songs had at least one monster, full-on guitar solo – and often many more – and no playing style was beyond him. A typical set saw him veer, style-wise, from the casual moodiness of Knopfler to the angled jazz strokes of Walter Becker to Juan Martin’s classical grace notes and Dave Mustaine’s frenetic slam-ons. And back again. He said little in conversation and yet, when he unfurled his guitar, became a formidable presence in a line-up that, also featuring Aengus McMahon on bass and Breffni O’Rourke on second guitar, made a full-on racket.

 

The band released four albums in all, one of which, ‘Another Day, Another Riot’ [1992] issued on Liquid Records where Denis Desmond, possibly the most dominant figure in the established Irish entertainment industry, was one of the principal players. The marriage of Toasted Heretic and the label arm of MCD Productions was a most unusual one and, in the great traditions of these things, didn’t last too long ;- the band would have been too restless for the label and the label too stolid for the band. But, for a time, there were mutual benefits for both parties too ;- Desmond’s operation armed Toasted Heretic with heavier artillery on the ground while Toasted Heretic brought to Desmond’s label that which money and clout couldn’t buy ;- credibility. And to these ends ‘Another Day, Another Riot’ birthed the single, ‘Galway And Los Angeles’, generated more middle-ground reaction than previously and, with a few bob behind them for the first time, allowed them to spread the message out beyond the island.

But it’s not as if Toasted Heretic ever lacked for critical support in Britain – and, indeed, in France – where, unlike many of Ireland’s most vaunted local acts, they’d enjoyed positive notices from the get-go. London-based writers like Paul Du Noyer, Andrew Mueller and a recently re-located Graham Linehan were at the heart of this rolling maul, which I joined around 1989, quickly developing a strong rapport with the band. I tried to feature them in all of my various freelance guises from then until after the release of ‘Mindless Optimism’ in 1994, after which we all seemed to scarper in different directions. But it was Jim Arundel’s live review, carried in Melody Maker’s issue of February 1st, 1992 that, in hindsight, probably said it better than any of us.

I was one of the many who fetched up at The Borderline Club in North London in late January, 1992, to see Toasted Heretic. I was working with Setanta Records at the time and was killing two birds with the one Tube-fare ;- support on the night was provided by the then four-piece Divine Comedy [featuring John Allen on vocals], who were one of the handful of acts on our roster. Jim Arundel – or Jim Irvin – had briefly tasted chart success himself and, as lead vocalist with Furniture, enjoyed a top thirty single back in 1986 with the classy ‘Brilliant Mind’, which he’d co-written. [As a member of another band, Because, he subsequently released a magnificent album during the early 1990s called ‘Mad Scared Dumb which, if it can be located, is well worth the effort].

Jim was as perceptive and unrelentingly fair a music writer and reviewer as I had encountered and, although clearly taken with Julian and fond of Toasted Heretic, wasn’t completely convinced by them. In Julian he saw ‘a starburst waiting to happen’ but wondered ‘whether Toasted Heretic, as it stands, is the vehicle that will carry him heavenward ?’. He concluded his review as follows :-‘There are, Gough has realised, far too few songs with the word ‘butterscotch’ in them. Not much to build a career on though, is it ?’ and, in so doing, presciently pointed up the band’s limitations.

Toasted Heretic’s line-up had also started to fracture. One of the band’s founding members, Breffni O’Rourke, left the group to pursue – what else ? – a full-time career in academia, and yet the band’s final album, ‘Mindless Optimism’ remains, to my ears, their most complete. Co-produced by their long-time mentor and sidekick, Pat Neary – a sussed and skilled sound recordist and engineer who’d located to Galway from Dublin in the mid-1980s and who’d first worked formally with the band on 1990’s excellent ‘Smug’ E.P. – ‘Mindless Optimism’ may well have been the sound of a band waving themselves off. And yet, as with The Smiths’ ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’, it is the group’s most full-bodied and energetic issue. I routinely hark back to it and, in ‘Passenger Jets’, ‘Lightning’ and, especially, ‘Here Comes The New Year’, hear a band at the very apex of a short, prolific and impactful tenure.

Julian is now a full-time writer and novelist and lives in Europe. The last time we spoke was around the release of ‘Mindless Optimism’, over twenty years ago, when I interviewed him for the first series of ‘No Disco’. Having brought Julian all the way from Galway to Cork for the day, we set up eventually in one of the beige-painted offices upstairs in RTÉ Cork and he just went off. Julian always had plenty to say but, behind the digs and the outrageous put-downs, there was plenty of substance too. I can remember the sound-recordist on that shoot – a man more cynical, even, than most of that persuasion – rendered gob-smacked by the ferocity of Julian’s assault, lobbing grenade after grenade. With forty minutes of gold committed to tape, he turned to me and asked the question much loved of bored soundmen the world over ;- ‘How the fuck are you going to edit that down ?’.

In the end it was easy enough ;- I just omitted everything that was offensive and defamatory. And, once we’d done that, we just over-laid the video clips and gave the music a voice.

With Toasted Heretic, you never really had to do too much else.

Toasted Heretic 2

Image courtesy of Maurice Horan

 

*SOURCE – juliangough.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FRANKED

The-Frank-Walters

Now that ‘We Are The Young Men‘, the new Frank And Walters single and the first cut lifted from the group’s forthcoming album, Songs For The Walking Wounded, has been sent out into the wider world, I’m going back over twenty-five years to a cracking live show of theirs in The College Bar in U.C.C. in late 1990.

I’d met the band some months earlier – during that summer’s World Cup – and I’ve covered  that aspect of our relationship in detail in a post that’s available here. Having worked with them on some of their earliest recorded material, I was adamant that I could land them some sort of a record deal. As with most other things at the time, I had no idea how I was going to achieve this but I genuinely thought they had the songs and enough sparkle. Buoyed by what I was seeing in other parts of the country – especially by Toasted Heretic, who were based in Galway and who were running a terrific home-spun operation – and by a number of other excellent bands who weren’t seeking the blessing of the Dublin archdiocese, we were confident of landing something. It just didn’t seem like an overly difficult thing to achieve, certainly not in theory.

Although Paul Linehan, the band’s singer and primary songwriter, had dabbled briefly with another excellent local outfit, the 3355409s, The Frank And Walters had no profile at all and even around Cork, existed for the most part in name only. I badgered Les Nolan, then soldiering with U.C.C.’s Live Music Society, into taking a punt on them and asked him to book them to perform during Live Music Week at the college towards the end of 1990. As I  recall it, Les was unconvinced by the whole thing, most probably because he didn’t know them or their material which, at the time, amounted to two pretty cracking demo tapes.  But he eventually saw my point and did the honourable thing ;- in the many years since I suspect he may have revised his views on that period somewhat.

And so The Frank And Walters fetched up in their home kit – purple loons and orange tops, which they’d bought in Leader’s, a long-standing outfitters on North Main Street in Cork – and, despite a Neanderthal sound system and the typical ennui of the sixty-strong student audience, they just levelled the place. Convincing the crowd that they weren’t a cabaret  or joke act – with their stage banter, their name and their look – was possibly the first  challenge, and they saw that one away quickly enough. I’ve long felt that, during the band’s commercial pomp, this aspect of their make-up was never definitively dealt with. And that this, on one level, tends to blur their impact as one of the finest pop bands – and maybe even the finest – Ireland has ever produced.

I’d started contributing some small pieces the previous year to Hot Press magazine – live reviews from low-key shows in Cork and Limerick, mostly and, with Niall Linehan’s squall still ringing in my ears days later, sat down to report on events in The College Bar for the paper. I didn’t see a single conflict of interest ;- I thought they were excellent and, if no one else was wide awake to their potential and if no one was going to push them off, then I was going to do so myself, and with gusto. It didn’t matter, in my mind, that I was actively advocating for them in other areas too ;- to me, this was now a campaign and, with all of us shouldering the wheel, we were on our way. The end-game was all that mattered.

This was one of the first pieces I had published in Hot Press ;- it wasn’t commissioned, I just submitted it blind, as I tended to do with most of my stuff back then. Damien Corless, then on the staff at Hot Press, was a huge support to me back then and he stuck with me when, as evidenced below, I had more enthusiasm and opinions than writing ability. But, in this instance, my hyperbole has ultimately stood up to scrutiny and, reading back now, I stand over every word. Even the contemporary references to ‘ecstacy’, ‘yuppies’, ‘spare ribs’ and Norman Metcalfe, an organist who provided oblique musical clues on the RTÉ television quiz show, ‘Quicksilver’, which was hosted by Bunny Carr.

By June of the following year, The Frank And Walters were playing the Cork Rock festival in Sir Henry’s and were about to release their first E.P. for Setanta Records. Next month they release their sixth album and I await that record like I’ve always done with all of their new material. Some things never change and some things never will.

My review was published in Hot Press in December, 1990, and read as follows ;-

The Frank And Walters  [College Bar, UCC]

Down here in the pit, The Frank And Walters offer some pristine light. They’re a funked-up three piece, found in the rock directories somewhere between The Kinks, The Wedding Present and The Stone Roses. That’s pedigree.

Sometimes they try too hard, and with their purple loons and fluorescent shirts might easily be taken for yet another cartoon pop piece. But when their spiky guitars and their blurted bass-lines do gel, The Frank And Walters are an intoxicating and refreshing little brew. Pure ecstacy.

They’re completely insane. Completely and utterly. Singer Paul cites Shandon’s bells and Norman Metcalfe’s shrill organ as primary influences, and he dedicates Michael,  with itsringing guitars and radical drums to ‘the yuppies who insist on calling spare ribs ‘bodice’’. Character.

But the songs aren’t lost, thankfully. The Frank And Walters have an uncanny knack of writing three minute pop songs to order, where they decorate their bursts with swathes of melody, ever-changing hooklines and devious beat-poetry. And it works, too. Angela Cray,  all noisy wah-wah and intimidating chorus and Walter’s Trip are testimony to a keen eye and a smooth writing hand. And then there’s the various insanities.

Pop gems fly and, despite the shite sound, The Frank And Walters toss their contenders’ bonnets into the ring. With a second guitar, they could be unstoppable. Right now they’re underway, coming shortly into your bedrooms. Just remember to keep your medicines well hidden.