Trash Can Sinatras

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.

 

 

IN THE ROCK GARDEN

 

I worked for a couple of years with my friend, Jeff Brennan, in The Rock Garden, the live music venue and sometime restaurant that opened in Crown Alley, in Temple Bar, Dublin, almost 25 years ago. It was the late Aiden Lambert, Blink’s manager, who brokered that job for me and I’ve written about our relationship here. Officially, I was charged with publicising the wide disparity of acts booked into the old cellar but, in reality, I was hired to play a straight bat to Jeff’s jokes and routines. And there were many.

 

He’d moved the short distance to The Rock Garden from The Underground Bar on Dame Street where, working with his father, Noel and Johnny, the weary drayman, he held court and booked bands for most of the 1980s, during a period of terrific optimism and no little quality for alternative Irish music. Bands like A House, Something Happens, The Stars of Heaven, The Slowest Clock, Rex And Dino, Power Of Dreams and [Backwards] Into Paradise took root in The Underground and, for years, were regulars on the tiny stage that often defied the laws of, if not physics, then certainly health and safety. Paul Page, Whipping Boy’s guitarist, was also one of that number – onstage and off – during The Underground’s heyday and has written about the peculiar sense of purpose that characterised the place in an excellent post on his own blog. That piece is available here

 

live at the underground

IrishRock.org

 

The Underground Bar features prominently in any credible history of the live music circus that pitched up around Dublin in the wake of U2’s initial breakthroughs in Europe and America. The venue hosted many fine emerging bands between 1984 and 1989, helping several of them to add muscle, over time, to what were often callow bodies at source. And to this end, Jeff’s role in the real affairs of state shouldn’t be under-estimated. Although he took his music very seriously, and while he was a generous support to any number of dreamers who landed in on top of him from all sides, he treated the more helium-filled aspects of ‘the industry’ with a healthy suspicion.

 

From behind the small bar, he traduced many reputations over the years while running a decent and honest shop founded on the principles of fair play and good spirits. What was once The Underground – ‘don’t look for it, it’s not there anymore’ – is now a lap dancing club and, tellingly, the old venue isn’t commemorated by either a plaque on the wall or by Jeff’s hand-prints on the pavement outside.

 

During his first couple of years at The Rock Garden, Jeff certainly had the place fizzing. The step up in scale, size and budget – if not necessarily class – gave him a bit more leeway and he snagged memorable live shows from the likes of The Frames, Radiohead, The Afghan Whigs, Pavement, Swervedriver, The Young Gods, The Sultans, The Frank And Walters, The Senseless Things, Adorable and countless others, all of whom lugged their back-lines in around the back of Crown Alley and down the concrete and iron stairs to set up.

 

New Year’s Eve was always a real highlight at The Rock Garden and I’d make sure I was back up from Cork in good time to see out the old and to ring in the new there. Maintaining a long-standing tradition started back in The Underground, Jeff would opt for heft, clout and loud guitars to headline the last night of the year. Sack, Blink and The Brilliant Trees in their pomp regularly stuffed the place and, playing to fans, friends and families, they’d always blister through mighty sets. And then, as the night wore on, Tony St. James and The Las Vegas Sound would take the late-shift and carry us over the threshold and out into the open promise of the twelve months ahead.

 

Along one whole side of the venue, meanwhile, the bar staff would be royally lashed and the punters at the taps would often stand six, seven or eight deep, all of them roaring for porter. Jeff and myself would mingle readily around the place, annoying the door-staff, insulting the easily insulted and roll out what was a well-honed double act. And, once the doors were eventually locked behind us, well into the tiny hours, we’d kick back with a handful of regulars, stretch the New Year out in front of us and begin to unpick the world and many of those – saps, twits and dibbicks among them – who sailed in her.

 

I formed some wonderful friendships down in The Rock Garden and I fell out with as many people there again. But never once did I feel like I was actually working. In the early evenings I’d often drop whatever I was doing and slip down into the belly of the beast to eavesdrop during a sound-check. From deep in the shadows I heard Sack repeatedly do ‘What Did The Christians Ever Do For Us’, ‘How The Stars Became Stars’ and ‘Omnilust’ one afternoon as they were fine-tuning their shapes. And those, indeed, were the days.

 

We answered to a bearded, heavy-set American boss called Mark Furst, who fronted the venue. Jeff was tasked with booking decent live music into the place on a nightly basis and, given the vagaries of live music, we had some right old disasters over time, some of which defied all odds. Pulp and The Cranberries both died spectacularly in The Rock Garden ;- The Cranberries attracted eighteen paying punters and, at one point, the band and it’s handlers out-numbered the crowd.

 

Pulp pulled into Crown Alley one lazy Saturday afternoon and, although the band was on the cusp of a real commercial cross-over in Britain, they attracted less than one hundred die-hards on the night. Half of the band’s backline had been stolen after a show in London the previous evening and, compounding their humour, Pulp’s dowdy tour manager wasn’t overly pleased to find that Jeff had billeted them in what was then proudly slugged as ‘Dublin’s cheapest hotel’ – a ten-buck-a-night bed-and-breakfast up on Gardiner Street. ‘Sorry to hear about the gear’, Jeff told the group. ‘But I’m sure the rest of it will be robbed on ye tonight’.

 

I had a real soft spot for The Dadas, a Northside combo led by Andy Fitzpatrick, who later went on to buttress William Merriman’s excellent Harvest Ministers ;- I honestly thought that The Dadas’ honey-coated canon had a real sparkle to it. After they attracted less than a score of paying punters into what could often be an unforgiving old cavern, Fursty took off on one in the offices upstairs. Like Brian Blessed in leather biker’s keks, he upped the ante and the volume ;- ‘The Dodos [sic]’, he drawled, ‘will never be booked here again’. An arrangement that, I suspect, suited the band as much as it suited the venue.

 

But we had our nights of glory too. The Rock Garden was accessible, available and well-equipped and, during the time I spent there, we hosted a wide range of artistes, musos, pissheads, chancers, thieves and poets – the full travelling circus. Indeed one of the most memorable performances there was actually by  a circus ;- The Jim Rose Circus Sideshow fetched up with bearded ladies and a bloke who hung breeze blocks off of his nipples and his penis. The queue outside wasn’t the only thing that stretched far and long around The Rock Garden that night.

 

We’ve lost a fair few of our own stellar performers in the years since and, when Jeff and myself meet each other these days, it’s more likely to be at a removal or a funeral than it is at a venue. We met twice last year ;- at our friend Aiden Lambert’s funeral last month and back last April when we waved off George Byrne, the writer and collector. I always doubted whether George actually liked The Rock Garden, and he certainly didn’t like it as much as he did The Underground where, over the years, he saw frenetic live sets from a host of his local fancies.

 

One Easter Saturday night, during a Something Happens/Cypress, Mine ! double-bill – and after a hard few days of it with both bands in Cork – he fell down the end of the stairs and onto the stage. This trick was far more difficult to complete in The Rock Garden although, to be fair, George manfully attempted it on several occasions. I wrote a longer piece about George after his funeral in April, 2015, and that piece is available here.

 

It was in The Rock Garden that I first met Uaneen Fitzsimons. She’d been a college-mate of the two Dónals – Dineen and Scannell – and, like the rest of us, was standing-by, waiting for a break. And it was in The Rock Garden, with the Dónals, Des Fahy, Jeanne McDonagh, Jim Carroll, Ritchie Flynn and Eamonn Crudden and many others that the basic idea for the No Disco music television series started to form. When Uaneen took No Disco’s reins from Dónal Dineen, it just felt like we’d completed another circle and made good on a conversation that may, or may not have been had years previously in Wild, one of the many clubs run upstairs at The Rock Garden.

 

Martin Egan was another gentle soul who’d turn up unannounced in Crown Alley every now and again and he’d leave with a handy support ;- Jeff would always make sure that he was looked after and sorted. Martin is one of that number of decent scouts we lost in the trenches during the last twelve months.

 

It’ll be ten years next April since I stood under my friend Philip’s box up in The North Cathedral in Cork and, with his brother and a handful of others, lifted him out and on his way. I think about Phil a lot ;- we lived in each other’s pockets as we dreamt our way through our teens and into our twenties and yet I often wonder if I ever really knew him at all ? But when The Trash Can Sinatras unveil their upcoming album later this year, I’ll instinctively ponder how he would have rated it ? He once ended up backstage with them after a sparsely-attended show in Nancy Spains in Cork and spooked the band by knowing their back catalogue more intimately than they did themselves.

 

I moved out of Cork twenty-five years ago and, for the most part, tend to keep a respectful distance now. I love the streets and the lanes around the Northside but I’m not one of those exiles who consistently yearn to get back there ;- I left for a reason. But for an important few days every Christmas, I’d make my way back home from Dublin and, before I’d even get to my family, I’d have already dropped in on Phil at the shop on Patrick Street where he worked.

 

And, from the door of the premises, we’d determine the year’s best releases and consider the previous twelve months, just rabbiting on. He’d make sure I knew just how great everything was and it would never dawn on me to probe a bit deeper ;- it just wasn’t how we rolled. Music and records brought us together in the first place and it was music and records that we last spoke meaningfully of. Indeed in truth, music and records were all we really ever spoke of meaningfully, more’s the pity.

 

That journey home becomes harder and more important by the year. Three weeks ago I hit the road South straight after Aiden Lambert’s funeral and I couldn’t wait to leave Dublin behind me. I made several other car trips over Christmas and ran up a fair few miles and, every now and again, from behind the wheel, my mind would drift off a bit. And I’d think about Aiden. And George Byrne, Tony Fenton, Mick Lynch and Martin Egan. In the low light I’d picture Uaneen and Pat Neville and Eugene Moloney and Brendan Butler ;- some of whom I knew well, some of whom I barely knew and yet all of whom, back the road somewhere, were there with us during the bright nights and the dark nights down in The Rock Garden and The Underground and Sir Henry’s and wherever else.

 

But I’d keep driving on. Because we’re always just driving on.

RockGarden

Courtesy of Nessa Carter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BRILLIANT TREES: GOLDFINGLAS

I absolutely loved The Brilliant Trees and, listening back to their two excellent albums from a distance, time hasn’t dimmed my enthusiasm for them. Some had them marked as being as good as early Oasis, others cited a Blur influence and there were times when, with the vocals stripped out, they had the classic reach of The Trash Can Sinatras. Eitherway, the band’s ambition stretched out far beyond their base in the Dublin suburb of Finglas. And further again from the tender, hesitant soul of the David Sylvian album from which they took their name.

The Oasis references would haunt them and, I think, undermine them a bit eventually. Both bands shared many traits and the comparisons are obvious and well-founded: from working-class backgrounds on the outskirts of big cities, both groups had an axis of brothers among their number. Both played a sinewy and uncomplicated guitar pop with unsophisticated lyrics, were led by brooding, good-looking frontmen and had an unshakeable belief in their own ability. But I never once heard The Brilliant Trees crow about how good they were and, in their pomp, they were damned good.

I worked alongside Jeff Brennan in The Rock Garden for eighteen months at the start of the 1990s. My job, ostensibly, was to promote the venue and to generate coverage for the bands we had in-coming but, in reality, I just hung around the place and annoyed the bar staff and the waitresses. Jeff had made the short move across from The Underground Bar on Dame Street, where he had developed the small, downstairs venue into Dublin’s most vibrant live draw. When last I passed by, The Underground had been replaced by a lap-dancing club and, knowing Jeff, the irony won’t be lost on him. Or, no doubt, on the hundreds of noisy oiks who played there over the years, all of whom put their own arses on the line for the smell of a few pounds.

The Rock Garden had opened in a blaze of publicity, an Irish take on the Covent Garden original, paying decent coin to international and local acts to keep live music going nightly inside it’s cavernous belly on Crown Alley, in Dublin’s Temple Bar. The Cranberries once played there to eighteen people and died a slow, slow death. Pulp arrived one sunny Saturday afternoon, unimpressed that they’d been booked into Dublin’s cheapest hovel, off Gardiner Street, and having had half of their back line stolen after a London show the previous night. ‘Ah, sorry to hear that’, Jeff told the band’s sour-pussed tour manager. ‘The other half is bound to be stolen tonight’. Less than a hundred turned up to see them, a matter of months before they released ‘Common People’. To the best of our knowledge, their equipment survived the trip.

Radiohead played their first Irish show at The Rock Garden, as did The Auteurs. The Sultans Of Ping FC, The Frames, A House, The Frank And Walters, The Golden Horde, Into Paradise and a litany of workmanlike British indie acts also visited and, for a couple of great years, The Rock Garden really had an edge.

The Brilliant Trees were one of a number of high-profile Dublin bands who played the venue regularly – Blink and Sack were other notables – and they consistently rammed the place. Not only that but they rammed it with a different kind of crowd, bringing a large, partisan following into town from their hub out in the North-West. Like Aslan, they actively ploughed a furrow deep in the suburbs and mobilised a pretty serious audience that was far from the usual alickadoos and liggers.

Tony Barrett, the band’s guitarist and driving force, worked with Dublin Corporation and I’d often see him around town during the day. I loved the cut of his jib, his relentless enthusiasm and his absolute belief in the power of music. The Brilliant Trees may not have been the most original band in the world but they were certainly one of the most spirited Irish acts I encountered during the early 1990s. For a while they were seriously courted, and rightly so.

They were still honing their craft when they played the famous Cork Rock bill in 1991 alongside The Frank And Walters, The Cranberries, Toasted Heretic, Therapy?, The I.R.S. and The Sultans of Ping F.C. and, after No Disco first went to air in the Autumn of 1993, Dónal Dineen, Rory Cobbe and myself got behind them with no little gusto. Tony would phone us regularly with up-dates and we’d make sure that the lo-fi videos for ‘Home’ and ‘Talent’ – with their plaintive images and no-budget feel courtesy of directors Donal Scannell, Eamonn Crudden and Niamh Guckian – featured regularly. In fact listening to ‘Home’ over twenty years on – a reflection on the destruction of the heart of inner city Dublin against the shadow of cranes on the sky-line – one is reminded that while The Brilliant Trees were a pop band at heart, they had a keen and prescient eye too. Which, I felt, set them apart from the pack.

And so when No Disco required a headliner for the Dublin Aids Alliance benefit concert we ran at Whelans in May, 1994, we went first to The Brilliant Trees. They were as obliging as they were enthralling and, of course, we were guaranteed that they’d stuff the place.

Probably later than they’d either wanted or expected, they released their first album, ‘Friday Night’, in the early summer of 1996. Later that year, I sat down with Tony Barrett, singer Alan Hoey and the band’s articulate drummer, Dave Farrell, in advance of what was to be the band’s biggest headline show ever, at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre. The band was clearly at a cross-roads and, beyond the thoughtful and considered tone of our exchange, there was a real frustration too, and I tried to capture this in the gut of the piece. By now The Brilliant Trees had been on the go for a while and, although ‘Friday Night’ had been released to no little acclaim, the entire project had come at a cost.

My piece ran originally in The Sunday Tribune on November 10th, 1996, under the heading ‘Money grows on Trees’ and is re-produced in full here

M o n e y   g r o w s   o n   T r e e s

It’s a rusted chestnut to be sure, but great records needn’t cost the world and it’s left leg. Rather, most record company debts are mounted by promotional budgets, mismanagement and by impractical and bloated band hand-outs.

Dublin’s Brilliant Trees would no doubt concur, an endearing and enterprising guitar pop group that have, in seven years, served their time, played their score of odds and that are still very squarely, however happily or unhappily, at an impasse.

The Brilliant Trees have been around long enough and hard enough to see both sides and, despite their noble if blind faith in popular music’s theories, it’s the industry’s defined sense of commerce and practice that has caused their greatest and most recurring problems.

And still The Brilliant Trees are arguably the only unsigned domestic act that can actually justify their press release hyperbole with fact. Their last Dublin show drew a capacity crowd to The Mean Fiddler. Which is probably what you’d expect from a band that was once described by the N.M.E., over-rashly and quite possibly in an over-flush of zeal, as being better than The Smiths. These days, over mid-afternoon, weekend lagers, they can afford to laugh. But only just. And while size and history may count for little when push comes to shove, The Brilliant Trees, a band that would rather do than talk, at least deserve a hearing.

‘We more or less pay for our own records’, Tony Barrett – the band’s guitarist and primary motivator – tells us. ‘We have a management company that, out of necessity, has become a record company and they bring out our records. We repay them the money that they’ve invested in us, but we’re thankfully at the stage where we’re almost quits with them now’. So while The Brilliant Trees may coyly shake all of this off as some sort of mild debt of love and devotion, the reality is that, for them, for now, it’s empty at the bottom.

Their first album, ‘Friday Night’, released shortly before the start of last summer, should have been their defining calling card ;- a pick and mix of wholesome, efficient and sinewy guitar pop songs that wear their hearts very blatantly but that make no apologies or outrageous claims. But the exercise has instead woken the band to the very essence of the music industry, to the point where these days band meetings are more about money and less about songs.

‘All in all, between the recording and the manufacture and artwork, the record cost us about £11,000’, reckons drummer Dave Farrell. ‘All of the money that we take in at gigs goes straight back to paying off the album debt. It’s not particularly easy at the best of times, but we do this because we love it, simple as that’.

Popular music has traditionally been the playground of the middle classes, rarely venturing to beyond the beyonds, and while The Brilliant Trees make light of their backgrounds in the working-class suburb of Finglas, many of their concerns are far more real than popular culture’s glamour guides would have us believe.

‘I’ve got a job doing wages in Dublin Corporation’, says Barrett. ‘I’ve got a young daughter, I’ve got a mortgage and I’ve already taken next year’s holidays so that we could play some American shows earlier this year.There was a time when we used to buy 20 cans and rehearse down at the shed for hours on end but we don’t even seem to have done that in an age. It’s probably a sign of the times’.

‘The reality is that we need regular record company money to make the kind of records we desperately want to make’, says Farrell. ‘With the ‘Heart Strings’ single, we just didn’t have the money and the clout to advertise the thing on radio or to do fly-posters and basic stuff like that which can mean so much. Ultimately it’s all very well and good making great singles but it’s another thing entirely trying to get the songs heard’.

‘To be perfectly honest’, Tony Barrett confides, ‘we’re very disappointed that ‘Heart Strings’ didn’t go into the Top 30. We were desperately looking for a genuine hit on this one because we know the song is good enough. It’s just a shame that it comes down to not having enough money to push the thing over the cliff’.

A well-received American jaunt earlier this year offers them a shard of hope, although again The Brilliant Trees move shyly. ‘We’re old enough and smart enough to know that it’s not going to happen for us in England’, claims Farrell, ‘and the only option open to us now is in America because America seems to be far more open to what we’re doing and what we’re about. The last time around we played nine shows in Boston and New York and we went down so well that we’ll probably move over there, however temporarily, at the start of next year’.

‘We were genuinely taken aback by the response we received in America’, singer Alan Hoey recalls. ‘Once again we know faraway fields are always greener but the thought of playing to a whole new audience and dealing with a new set of people is all very exciting for us, even after all this time’.

In an industry that works largely on a tissue of mutual lies, deceits and distortions, The Brilliant Trees have at least come this far with their dignity intact. These days, however, they’re dealing in far more abstracts and with far more numbers than they probably ever imagined.

‘No matter how well you do in this country, you’re never going to be able to support the band in the long-term’, Dave Farrell concludes. ‘The point is that if there were 800 people at our last show in Dublin, then there may easily be another 800 out there, and if there’s another 800 out there, then there may be another 8,000 out there. Who knows ?’.

NOTE :- The Brilliant Trees did roll on, doing what they’d promised they would. And in 1999, with Florida-based management in place, released a second, excellent album, ‘Wake Up And Dream’. Tony Barrett is currently part of Elevens, alongside Sack’s Martin McCann and Mark Healy from The Josephs.

THE SMITHS AND MY MOTHER.

 

I was born, luckily, to a mother who adored music. I remember many occasions during my childhood when she’d power up her old record player – and it was very definitely her record player – and stack it with a variety of old 7 inch singles and all manner of albums. It was my mother who bought me my first record – E.L.O.’s ‘Shine A Little Love’ – and it was her devotion to daytime music radio [she was the housewife in ‘housewife’s choice’] that re-inforced the message and exposed me to all kinds of wonderful. I had no idea at the time, of course, but the rose was being sown ;- in my mother’s world, and later in my own, those who didn’t have music in them just weren’t worth the effort. They were queerhawks, so you went there lightly.

 

She introduced me, one way or another, to The Beach Boys, Marianne Faithful and The Beatles. She was appalled then, as she is now, by the more lurid aspects of rock and roll and was especially suspicious of David Bowie, outwardly at least. ‘That fella doesn’t know if he’s a man or a woman’, she’d regularly say, more to get a rise out of my father than anything else, I imagine. But she ran an honest and good home and, over the years, heartily welcomed many a passing musician who dossed down for the night. ‘How’s the boy from Into Paradise ?’, she still asks. ‘Is he still doing the music ?’.

 

I started secondary school in 1980 and, like my friends, was happy in the haze of the chart hits of the day. I was keeping a close eye on E.L.O, who were still regulars on the hit-parade and who I had now adopted, carefully collecting their new releases while dipping into the bargain bins in search of their older material. At home, various compilation albums – often advertised on television and usually released on either the K-Tel, Telstar and Warwick labels – also helped to broaden my knowledge and expand my breath of reference. And it was here that I first got my ears around the likes of The Sweet, Mud and Gilbert O’Sullivan, all of whom I still love.

 

But it was all a bit different with The Smiths. From the off I felt I was operating a bit more illicitly and under my own steam ;- not like any other love, this one was different. I saw them for the first time on a European-wide music show, late one weekend night on RTÉ, alongside another British group called Immaculate Fools, featured as part of a broader event showcasing emerging bands from countries throughout the continent. The short video clip captured the group performing their new single in a shed filled draped with flowers ;- I noted the name in my head and, on a Saturday morning some weeks afterwards, located a copy of ‘This Charming Man’ upstairs in Eason’s on Patrick Street in Cork.

 

 

The Smiths are still one of my favourite bands ever – as are E.L.O. – and, like everyone else who fell under their spell, changed forever the way I listened to music and what I expected from it. I’ve written about them extensively over the years because a] everybody else has and b] there was always so much to write about ;- to music writers, oiks and pseuds everywhere, they were a gift that just kept on giving. We’ll post some of those longer pieces here over time, but in the meantime …

 

In November, 1996, the French music and culture magazine, Les Inrockuptibles , issued a one-off album, ‘The Smiths Is Dead’, to mark the tenth anniversary of the release of The Smiths’ third studio album, ‘The Queen Is Dead’ [which was actually unleashed in June, 1986]. The magazine asked ten of it’s favourite bands du jour to cover a track each from the acclaimed album ;- and so The Frank And Walters did ‘Cemetry Gates’,  The Trash Can Sinatras took on ‘I Know It’s Over’, The Divine Comedy performed ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’, The Boo Radleys did the title track and so on and so forth. It sounded excellent in theory but, in reality, was far from it ;- some bands should just stay uncovered.

 

 

I used the opportunity of the Les Inrockuptibles release to write an easy Sunday Tribune column on October 20th, 1996. As well as re-cycling some of my own well-worn observations on the band , I asked four people – some I knew well, some not at all – to throw a light on the band by selecting their own favourite Smiths song. I didn’t ask one woman for an input, and it never once struck me that this was odd. One of the most common misconceptions about The Smiths was that their audiences were exclusively male, and from across a very broad class spectrum. And besides, I spent much of the 1990s boring other men to tears with intense theory about Morrissey, Marr and ‘the split’, most of which I’d lifted from a long-lunch I’d had with Johnny Rogan, author of ‘The Severed Alliance’ in The Long Valley bar in Cork in 1994.

 

That Sunday Tribune column, which ran under the headline ‘The Smiths : forging an identity’, most of which we’ve re-produced in full below, was merely an extension of some of those boys-club conversations. And I’m still not sure if this was a good or a bad thing.

 

Originally published in Sunday Tribune October 20th 1996

Ask Me. Ask Me. Ask Me. And Me. 

 

There was a time and a place when everyone had an opinion on The Smiths. To many of us they were the defining popular cultural force of our – or indeed any other – generation. To others they were maudlin and self-important which, of course, suited our notions anyway and served only to make us respect them even more. And right now, ten years after the release of arguably the last decade’s most important and pivotal album, ‘The Queen Is Dead’, they are once again very much at one’s elbow.

 

That both the band and the record have endured for so long is a tribute to their own stubborn vision and to the intensity of blind faith they culled from a heretofore beaten and tired generation. Peddling a blatant gang mentality, they played on their own terms and quit while they were ahead by laps.

 

In hindsight The Smiths were the academic soundtrack of our adolescence, a conversation piece and a salvation of sorts. In Morrissey’s words and all through Johnny Marr’s masterful songs, we saw a world of underdogs and inadequates, the clinical antidote to New Romance, beach-pop and synthetics. They dealt in smug, knowing one-liners and, naturally, we believed their every word.

 

The Queen Is Dead’ made itself known to us some ten years ago, quite possibly the last record we have ever awaited so eagerly. But by this time we had already swapped-off that part of our vinyl stack which pre-dated ‘Hand In Glove’. The first ever line to their first ever single went :- ‘Hand in glove, the sun shines out of our behinds’, the gorgeously arrogant intent that was to become par for The Smiths. And that was our first taste of ‘real’ or ‘proper’ music.

 

My friend Dónal Dineen, a television person and writer, spent his adolescence on a farm in Rathmore, County Kerry, taking his social cues – like far too many of us – from late-night radio and bad weekend television. ‘My favourite Smiths song’,  he admits, ‘is ‘This Charming Man’ because sometimes the best songs have the best opening lines, and this one opens spectacularly. I first heard this song, which opens ‘Punctured bicycle on a hillside, desolate. Will nature make a man of me yet ?’ having cycled to a youth club teenage disco in Killarney. Suddenly, the whole world made sense’.

 

But The Smiths made their own rules, pushing their boat out far beyond the beyond. By the time of ‘The Queen Is Dead’ they were articulating, through popular music, with guitars and with words, everything we’d long suspected but could never actually admit. Nick Kelly, boy-wonder rock-kid at The Times, remembers the record like it was yesterday. ‘My favourite Smiths song is ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’, he pops, ‘because in it’s time it gave a certain hope to all of those pale boys at teenage discos that couldn’t quite muster the courage to either dance or flirt. It should be made required listening for all teenage boys going to their first school disco’.

 

In many respects of course, The Smiths were grossly out of time and out of kilter and yet they were very quickly essential, if only because they stimulated our every sense. Marr’s songs, even ten years on, stand any time-test, a truly spectacular and prolific canon that, with it’s sheer scope and ambition, dominates an entire musical era like a blanket on a cage. Morrissey’s words, meanwhile, have long-since become biblical and Eddie Bannon, this town’s funniest new comedian, remembers them fondly.

 

‘My favourite Smiths song is ‘Panic’’, he says. ‘The one where the chorus goes ‘hang the D.J., hang the D.J.’. Its basically a memory-linked thing – although having said that, I just also despise disc jockeys. But I can remember seeing them on television, on The Old Grey Whistle Test, I think, and just being completely entranced’.

 

But by now of course, just before and certainly during ‘The Queen Is Dead’, Morrissey had assumed legendary status. Not only were his band on a very definite roll but they had long-since become a large-scale mainstream alternative, albeit one that very truly irritated our parents, sisters and, it appeared, the tabloids. This, in our book, was well cool. Morrissey gave spectacularly good copy to anyone willing to listen, and the further he pushed, then the quicker he became a celebrated cause. And we, blindly and bizarrely, just loved him.

 

Gerard Crowley is a free-lance cartoonist. ‘My favourite Smiths song, for several reasons, is ‘Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want’’, he says. ‘Not only does it have a gorgeous sleeve [later banned] but the song is suitably downbeat. Up-tempo songs generally make me depressed, and this is truly beautiful. Johnny Marr’s mandolin wouldn’t be out of place on the ‘Cinema Paradiso’ soundtrack. It’s that good’.

 

All of which leads – in a circular and misty-eyed way, I know – to this. At the end of this month, the French rock music monthly magazine, Les Inrockuptibles, celebrates one of popular music’s most important anniversaries with a tribute album of odds and ends ;- ‘The Queen Is Dead’ as played and shaped by a quirky bin of fans and opportunists. And while most tribute records largely say nothing to anyone about either self or life – often no more than record-label hi-jacks and credibility cash-ins – it’s pretty cool to at least see something from our own petty histories come back and shame us and enthral us in equal measures and in all of the best possible ways. It’s weird, I know, but they really probably were our very own Beatles. That, at least, is my excuse. 

 

THE ESSENTIAL SMITHS :- MY SUGGESTED 20 GOLDEN LIGHTS

 

There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ From ‘The Queen Is Dead’ album [1986]

Accept Yourself’ From ‘This Charming Man’, 12-inch single [1983]

Rubber Ring’ From ‘The Boy With The Thorn In His Side’, 12-inch single, [1985]

This Charming Man’ Single [1983]

Sheila, Take A Bow’ Single [1987]

The Headmaster Ritual’ From ‘Meat is Murder’ album [1985]

This Night Has Opened My Eyes’ From ‘Hatful Of Hollow’ album [1984]

William, It Was Really Nothing’ Single [1984]

Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What  I Want’ From ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’ single, [1984]

I Won’t Share You’ From ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’ album, [1987]

Cemetery Gates’ From ‘The Queen Is Dead’ album, [1986]

Well, I Wonder’ From ‘Meat Is Murder’ album, [1985]

Is It Really So Strange ?’ From ‘Sheila, Take A Bow’ single [1987]

Hand in Glove’ Single [1983]

I Know It’s Over’ From ‘The Queen Is Dead’ album, [1986]

Asleep’ From ‘The Boy With The Thorn In His Side’ single [1985]

Death Of A Disco Dancer’ From ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’ album [1987]

Shoplifters Of The World Unite’ Single [1987]

Reel Around The Fountain’ From ‘The Smiths’ album, [1984]

Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me’ From ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’ album, [1987]

TRASHCAN SINATRAS: SONGS FOR SWINGING LOVERS

 

Trashcan Sinatras have long been one of my favourite bands and I’ve spent years giving them the shift of death in print, on television and on radio. We got behind them royally during my time on No Disco, where tracks like ‘Hayfever’, ‘I’ve Seen Everything’ and especially ‘The Genius I Was’ appeared as regularly as Donal Dineen himself. And to no real effect :- a noble handful at the back remained attentive while everyone else demanded more Mudhoney.

 

The band has played live in Ireland infrequently, usually to small but adoring audiences, and I’ve seen them in a variety of different Dublin venues, most notably [and least memorably] in a hell-hole in Temple Bar called The Hub, in 2003.

 

Muse was one of Ireland’s first on-line culture and arts ventures, edited and curated by Jim Carroll and, for a while, I contributed a regular column that, in hindsight, reads very, very angrily. Approaching the end of the millennium, I’d cultivated new interests and had returned to several others and, to all intents, had no stomach for writing solely about music. Jim, to his credit, gave me an absolutely free reign and we’ll re-post some of those other pieces – which are very personal – over time.

 

But while Trashcan Sinatras prepare for the launch of a sixth studio album, we thought it was maybe timely to return to this piece, which first appeared in Muse in February, 1999. The band had been dropped by Go Discs Records some years previously and had been forced to sell it’s Shabby Road Studio in Kilmarnock as a result. Their live date in Dublin’s Mean Fiddler on March 5th, 1999 – with which this piece coincided – was one of only a handful of shows the band played that year.

 

With the music industry turned inwards on itself, and technology developing out of all recognition, I saw hope in the distance for Trashcan Sinatras [who, at that point were still referenced also as The Trashcan Sinatras]. And I still do.

Originally published in Muse, February 1999

 

 

 

 

Ten years later and The Trashcan Sinatras are still crawling at their own pace. Nine years since their first record and, through the gin and the rain and almost in spite of the whole world, they’re shaking through. Three perfect elpees into a career that, on your ledger, reads bleak and blank. But only if you’re talking numbers.

 

Like a host of angels before them and no doubt long after them too, they inspire within their own fun-sized legion of support an absolute and blanket devotion.  A bit like The Fall I guess, only with better songs and with more audible words.  Which is only as popular music at its most enticing and anointing should be, nonetheless. My own rented townhouse is, by way of an example, adorned with more of their badly hung promo-matter than anything else.  Up there, pride of place between Keane and McGrath and for no other reason than that mine is a house that’s proud to have known them.  Prouder still to have shaken itself silly to their songs.

 

The Trashcan Sinatras are currently without a record label, without a bob and without a hope.  At least on paper.  In the last while, they’ve also undergone serious re-constructive surgery, something which may or may not be connected to all or some of the above.  For those of you who know them merely from their erratic pop videos, seen sometimes on quality music television, or from all of those very similar early evening radio shows, the band is gasping and ailing and yet somehow still alive. Surviving on scraps and on someone else’s good-will, still around kicking on doors and stealing your booze.  What’s really great to report, though, is that they’re still resolute, still clever, still articulate, still funny and still write tunes that, for the most part, stick like good glue.  Even if, given the appalling state of the domestic music industry’s health, this is an irrelevance.

 

Popular music is currently bracing itself.  It is an industry increasingly more conscious of its own need to survive, sensing all manner of paranoia the more multi-media infiltrates every new housing estate.  And as more and more music is forced onto an ever more selective and declining market, song quality has become increasingly more obsolete, stuck well down the pecking order behind marketing budgets and legal fees. It’s not so much the quality of the single, basically, as the size of the in-store poster display.  Or the scale of the strike-forcing on your first three singles.

 

 

God, how Noel Gallagher must be ticked pink right now.  Four years ago, Oasis were the vehicle onto which the industry tied its best horses, doing what it had always done best and seizing the moment.  Not defining it, merely exploiting an unexpected good fortune.  Opportunity meets culture statement with the blessing of the beautiful people and we’re off.  Sadly bands like  Pulp and Blur [who, at the time, rode the slipstream most prominently and who also, last time around, made their best records in ages even if none of you bought them], can never hope to repeat their previous market penetrations or re-visit their former chart positions. It is, for both of them after a fashion, a downward slide from here.  The industry drove them onwards to the point of overload while it could and, after radio re-coiled and marketing paranoia set in,  it drove them back to when it doesn’t require them. Even if the songs were far better.

 

What the industry is facing and what it is already in some cases coming to terms with, is an increased sense of  polarity.  The space and the distance between the haves and the have-nots has rarely been as pronounced – not since the middle of the last decade, if the truth were told.  So for all of E.M.I.’s very public investment in, say, The Divine Comedy, Neil Hannon’s immediate future is not in the hands of the man who signed him but rather in the hands of his marketing and product managers.  Because even if he does deliver E.M.I. the finest record of his generation [and it’s not that they’d notice, either way], he is dependent ultimately on the size and the force of the marketing budget behind it.  Hate to break it to the Mercury Rev fans and all but that’s pop.

 

Popular music has always been driven onwards by recurring fads and fashion and, with every passing fifteen years, familiar themes become re-apparant.  The British popular music industry has become so top-heavy over the last five years with a slew of ‘almost-theres’ – like The Supernaturals, Travis, Cast and, even though it kills me, The Trashcan Sinatras – that it cannot now sustain its own weight.  So what has emerged over the last six months, and what will become increasingly more obvious the closer we get to the millennium and beyond, is a move away from the politics of accounting.  A return to fanzine politics. To branding and loyalism. To C86‘s no-fi, no-nonsense sense of purpose.  To when quality songs and word-of-mouth propaganda were more than enough to overcome poor recording standards, second-hand sleeves and botched production.  It is necessity breathing invention by another name.

 

Now I don’t really wish to sound like another flatulent old anorak, but the more I see and the more records I hear, then the less I’m surprised by popular music.  So The Trashcan Sinatras are currently in Japan where they’re working up another mini-storm to probably, an audience of about twelve. How they possibly keep on keeping on, and why, astonishes me, given that the marketeers and the speculators under-wrote them ages since.  But there’s far more to life than cash books and balances,more than one way too, to skin your grandmother’s cat.  So what price their second coming at the year’s end, wrapped and bound with Belle And Sebastian and Snowpony on a gift-pack cassette labelled with love and with the inscription C-00?

Stranger things have happened.  Ask Robbie Williams.