U2

DELORENTOS AND THE LURE OF WHELANS

I’ve been attending live shows at Whelan’s, on Camden Street in Dublin, for decades. During which time the physical lay-out of the building has changed in line with the development of the street on which it is located and, indeed, the thinning of my hairline. The fabled old venue is now a far broader, more physically elaborate concern than it was, thirty years ago, when it was an unofficial party headquarters for the folk and dog-on-a-string set. But in the time since, it’s booking policy has stayed resolute and, like many of those who regularly return to perform there, seems to be rooted in old currencies like taste and decency.

Whelan’s is in far better shape now than many of us who’ve lived and indeed, loved in it, as much a refuge for the bewildered and the distracted as a live music venue of distinction. And unlike much of that which now surrounds it in central Dublin, it hasn’t yet offered up its soul to the glass, chrome and steel girders that are increasingly prominent around that part of the city.

The lay-out in its main-room should, by any measure, render it un-workable. The hollow can be an awful sound-trap that, like imported craft beer, has unexpectedly messed the heads of the good and the great over the years. But that catholic booking policy, though, brings a pardon to every charge and, although you’re never entirely sure what you’ll find there from one night to the next, the place regularly pulls rabbits out of hats. Whenever the stars get into line, there’s hardly a better location anywhere in which magicians take the floor.

A life-sized sculptural representation of a solitary Dublin drinker, The Stone Man, has forever kept guard at the main bar as a perpetual night-watchman who has seen every single live show at Whelan’s. Its long been one of the venue’s bespoke features but, beyond that, can maybe also be read as a metaphor for the place itself, an old-school constant – a throwback, even – in a world gone increasingly anxious and unreliable. A point that hasn’t been lost, you’d think, on the inestimable Lloyd Cole, a frequent visitor to the place who, in 2008, recorded a live acoustic album in the main room there and titled it ‘The Whelan’. Lloyd, as we know, isn’t one for indulging the gobdaws.

Nostalgia, of course, is a canny seductress and you’d want to be fair careful of her once she gets into her stride. But there comes a tide in the affairs of all those who make and inhale music when they just don’t need to be told anymore: that point where you no longer feel compelled to justify either the music you make or listen to. The result of what the next vacuous Love Island wannabe or, indeed, the next great emerging half-forward – and increasingly, there are few differences – might refer to on a sponsored Instagram post or during a pre-match interview with Marty Morrissey as the importance of the journey over the lustre of the destination.

I stopped making excuses for my favourite bands and performers many, many years ago, after the penny finally dropped and I realised just how un-natural, and indeed anti-natural, the basic idea of ‘being in a band’ is. Think of the most complicated and difficult marriage you can, and then multiply it by the number of bass-players your average group gets through in a lifetime and that’s where the level of intensity is. Which is why I’m so in awe of those in groups everywhere who’ve stayed the distance and managed to keep their faculties and their friendships intact as they’ve done so. From the biggest bands in the world dutifully going about it because they’re contractually bound or because they know no other way to the old school-friends, now working in middle management positions in state agencies, still bound by sound and hacking around together in someone’s garage. For no other reason than, into their middle and later years, it’s a handy way to escape the kids and annoy your wife.

Indeed, whenever I hear ‘City of Blinding Lights’ or ‘With Or Without You’ or ‘One’ by U2, I’m now struck less by the grandeur of the music and way more by the fact that U2 is still able to line-up shoulder-to-shoulder, still able to throw the odd brick. Irrespective of what one might think of the music, and there’s plenty here about that, what, ultimately, is more important? Go on, I dare you.

This is the kind of weighty matter that, I suspect, occupies many of those among the Whelan’s set, those regulars who congregate in its alcoves before shows, the music a cover beneath which important relationships are kept steady and the heads kept on the straight. Those for whom those once-a-year appearances by the old-guard – Something Happens, The Frank and Walters, Nick Kelly and their ilk – are desperately re-assuring, the music as unimportant or as vital as you need it to be, depending.

During those fleeting moments years ago, their greatness was briefly determined by ‘Burn Clear’, ‘After All’ and ‘Arclight’, back when they represented youth, dynamism, life, optimism and energy. Now, as the world hums on, they’re fundamentally as human as the rest of us, determined as much by an ability to simply endure as much as anything more profound. They become us and we become them.

I couldn’t believe how quiet the middle of Dublin was on the Monday night before last Christmas. Even Camden Street, normally so noisy, belligerent and difficult to navigate whether on foot or behind a wheel, was empty. In the back room at Whelan’s, however, the tills were ringing out, business nicely brisk and the going good; another end-of-year Delorentos show, another sell-out.

The North Dublin four-piece now carry the baton once held by The Franks, The Happens, The Fats and that clatter of zesty, local outfits who boxed spectacularly above their weight and spoiled us during the Jack Charlton years. They are the heart of a bridging generation that, in the history of recent Irish popular music connects A House and Whipping Boy with Fontaines D.C. and Murder Capital. A group that, five albums into a weighty career, now finds itself at an inevitable junction.

Those listeners to the mainstream weekday radio schedules will hear Delorentos intone Ryan Tubridy’s programme on RTÉ One every morning [‘S.E.C.R.E.T.] and the band’s material [‘Petardu’ and ‘Home Again’] has also featured on a couple of recent television advertising campaigns. Given how deep and wide their canon extends, and how impressive their development has been, it would be a shame if, in the broader public mind, this was the extent of their legacy. So while the band is technically marking the tenth anniversary of the release of it’s fine second album, ‘You Can Make Sound’, its also book-ending a productive decade and maybe stock-taking for the road ahead. The few bob to be made from the handful of sold-out, end-of-year shows won’t be scoffed at either.

The last decade has taken then far and wide but, commercially, nowhere near far or wide enough. Their curve has been a largely upward one, though, and the group is a far different concern now than when it first emerged in the mid-noughties. Alongside another Portrane-based outfit, Director, they were the feisty, riffy sound of Fingal.

Like many young bands and new groups with an instinctive knack for writing, they were in a ferocious hurry and that early material, much of which is terrific, is marked by an almighty rush to get to the big pay-off. Nothing we haven’t seen previously, though; any punk-infused bucks might, at one point, have been expected to fire off fifteen songs in any thirty-minute set, anthems the lot of them.

But Delorentos always had the physical heft to match their fast hands, however, and those early numbers with which they so dynamically announced themselves – ‘Do You Realise’, ‘Eustace Street’, ‘Idle Conversation’, ‘Sanctuary’ and the perennial ‘S.E.C.R.E.T’ – sound as impressive now as they did when they first detonated. Instant, gnarly pop songs that gave them a real head-start on the rest of the field. Director, who themselves released a couple of moderately diverting post-industrial, Franz-gender elpees, are another curious footnote in the recent history of popular Irish music. But Delorentos shared little with them really bar an Eircode and, by any standards, had far more in common with another fine Dublin guitar band, Sack, to whom those first couple of elpees bear more than a passing resemblance.

With five albums in their locker now, Delo have assembled a body of work as impressive as anything put together by any local group during the last forty years, with the obvious exception of U2. A House, Villagers, The Frames, The Franks, Something Happens; in respect of breadth and body, they’re up there. And yet, in some of my more introspective moments, I wonder if they really get the credit they deserve?

I heard one of them talk impressively on radio some time back about the vagaries of song-writing, and particularly about how an IMRO-sponsored workshop led eventually to one of the band’s best songs, ‘Everybody Else Gets Wet’, one of the many stand-outs from their fourth album, ‘Night Becomes Light’. The idea of formal, structured writing will be anathema to many, kicking against basic creative instinct, the magic in the moment and so forth. And yet its maybe indicative of Delorentos and how they approach their work, for many bands the definitive four-letter word. Recalling the great Cork writer, Seán Ó Faoláin, one might regard them as a band who, in the presence of great music, live nobly’. Either way, ‘Everybody Else Gets Wet’ is a banger.

‘Wet’ is also indicative of the band’s transition from the angled, indie-beat of their first couple of elpees to the more complicated, precise and far less frenetic approach heard on their last three; in time honoured fashion, they’ve mellowed nicely as they’ve gone on. So that while I’m not convinced that the most recent Delorentos album, 2018’s ‘True Surrender’ is the group’s best or most compelling, what is far clearer is that under the keen eye of Tommy McLoughlin, its easily the band’s most expressive and confessional. In part, as on ‘Islands’, ‘S.O.S.’ and the stand-out, ‘In the Moment’, it throws back as far as the bubby, prototype synthy sounds of Tony Mansfield’s New Muzik. Elsewhere it nods to the band’s more familiar, modestly-indie cut influences, Keane most obviously.

The detailed press release that accompanied ‘True Surrender’, and that still features on the band’s website, suggests that Delo have entered a far more complicated phase, not just in respect of their output but in respect of what shapes it. That tonal shift is manifest across the eleven cuts on that elpee, where allusions to parenthood, uncertainty and broader perspectives are fore-grounded. The record opens ominously – ‘I see stormy weather, coming at me across the great water’- before Ronan Yourell determines at the close that ‘there’s a new horizon calling out to me’. Where once, fleet of foot and fancy-free, Delorentos did angst and anguish better than any group in the country [‘I know, you’ve been talking to him. And it’s all coming out now’], these days there’s an existential shadow on their lung. Sad, uncertain songs are almost invariably more beautiful and way more unsettling and, in this respect, ‘True Surrender’ certainly adds another layer to what is already a serious body of work.

Much of which featured during the band’s fin-de-siècle, greatest hits shows before Christmas and not even a persistent tuning issue in Whelan’s could detract from another fuzzy night in the band’s company. During which there were also a couple of references from behind the mics to upheaval and the roll of life; one of them lives in London now, some of them are recent parents, such things. So these are interesting times for them because, although they can point to a fine local following, some of which is borderline fanatical, they’re unlikely at this point to convert that into a broader, international-facing success.

It’s probably the single most unfashionable, overly-simplistic and maybe even patronising thing to ever write about a band but I love Delorentos because they genuinely make me feel good. And I invariably leave their shows feeling buoyed and far better about myself. There’s surely a place for that, isn’t there? Because that’s really the whole point, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

GIDDY-UP

Photo : Greg Canty

Within the distinctive history of popular music in Cork, it’s far too easy – and maybe even stipulated by order of The Knights Of Cool – to over-look the achievements of the most outwardly successful of all those local bands who entered the fray during the 1990s: Rubyhorse. An easy-to-read, un-fussy pop band who blazed a trail far from home and did what all of their more decorated predecessors and peers couldn’t: make a splash in America, the final frontier.

The wide, unyielding American freeways are central to the upward aspects of their story – and there are several of those – but that vast expanse of tarmac is also at the heart of the band’s implosion. Which, as can often be the case with this sort of carry-on, was maybe more interesting to the gawkers back at home who were taken by surprise by their success in the first place.

Numerous volumes have been completed and documented about the insatiable demands of the American entertainment industry, a market in which numerous Irish hopefuls have been physically destroyed and emotionally splintered since the 1970s. The circuit there just doesn’t do love on the cheap.

It’s against this curtain that the remarkable achievements of both U2 and The Cranberries – and, who knows, perhaps eventually Hozier too ? – will ultimately be best determined, irrespective of how one might critically evaluate their recorded output. That U2 can continue to function as they do and appear, on the surface at least, to still possibly enjoy their own company after so many years spent hawking themselves on the inter-state highway system, might well be the band’s most powerful ever statement. History will recall that, beyond everything else, U2 survived America reasonably intact.

Incredulous as it sounds, Rubyhorse too were themselves driving it on apace in the American mainstream and, for several years, took a considerable swing at the most volatile and expansive market of all, battered to bits for their troubles. Despite their successes, not a whole lot is known about them.

That Rubyhorse took their name from a song by The Wonder Stuff is maybe the most obvious concession the group ever made towards the more traditional indie aesthetic. And it’s around the thorny issue of identity that the band’s issues begin: to my mind at least, they were perennially conflicted. Instinctively a well-upholstered, global-facing pop band with natural writing sensibilities, they found themselves, by dint of birth, at odds with much of what was going down on their own door-step. Most notably that distinctive racket, performed in often impenetrable Corkese, by the likes of The Frank And Walters and The Sultans Of Ping and by many of those who boldly went before and came after them.

Without the sort of jagged weird that has long characterized the Cork food-chain from Nun Attax and Microdisney via the class of 1990 and onwards to The Rulers Of The Planet and even Cyclefly, Ruby Horse were just far too clean for many of the local alickadoos. For a band that could play so smartly, Rubyhorse were consistently out of time.

It’s not like they were the first either, and indeed much of the story of new music in Cork post-1980 can be read as a philosophical struggle with clear lines. The Franks and The Sultans were terrific pop bands by any measure and yet, despite the strength of their writing, were still rooted in the faintly absurd and tended to defer there as a default. That colloquial edge gave them both an early leg-up and de-coupled them from the over-earnestness that characterized much of the emerging music across the country. But it was also key to their critical undoing: that sort of stuff just doesn’t travel well and tends to grate after a while.

Popular music in Cork has long tended towards the margins. Having had one of the more remarkable aspects of its social history, The Arcadia Ballroom years, hi-jacked by the success of U2 – the ultimate colonial outsiders who not only own that entire period now but also pillaged it for staff – the city has made a defiant, post-trauma statement ever since. One where wider mainstream ambitions – notions, you might say – can go and whistle for it.

Among the best pop songs out of Cork over the last forty years are Kooky’s ‘The Good Old Days’, ‘The Darkness’ by Flex And The Fastweather, ‘Scorch Avenue’ by The Chapter House, ‘Backwater’ by Benny’s Head and ‘Sparkle’ by Rubyhorse. But it’s not as if any of them spring instinctively to mind or feature in the more considered overviews of music in the county. Instead they’ve been lost in a blizzard of loud guitars, standard indie shapes and what the guitarist Giordhai Ui Laoghaire has described as ‘spadgy rhythms’.

It was against this backdrop that Rubyhorse – good-looking, bright boys from Bishopstown and a world removed from their noisy neighbours, The Frank And Walters – took their first tentative steps, thinking big from the moment they could stand unaided. They looked like the male cast of The Breakfast Club and didn’t sound like The Wedding Present: they were studied, sharp, under-age and had their hands full.

I first came across them after they’d just about started secondary school and when, as B.F.G., they performed a couple of lunchtime shows in an halla mór at Coláiste An Spioraid Naoimh. After which Tony O’Donoghue, then working with one of the bigger national promoters, snared them a couple of decent support slots in city venues they weren’t legally allowed to enter. And even then they were a band apart: callow kids on a serious growth kick, their sturdy sound – more Genesis than Genesis P. Orridge. – built on layers of guitars and keyboards. I couldn’t believe how determined and driven they were.

But yet, like practically everyone else who encountered them during the early 1990s – apart from maybe their parents – I was gob-smacked by the scale of what they went on to achieve. Delighted, for sure, but genuinely taken aback because ultimately, all they ever really presented was a rock-solid body of work, a decent ethic, a couple of key personal connections and a pretty pointed desire to get on.

They checked out, years later, with four albums to their name – including one for Island Records – a slew of high-profile American television appearances and years of non-stop live shows. Indeed decades before the emerging Dublin band, Fontaines DC, performed for Jimmy Fallon, Rubyhorse were regulars on that same circuit. It’s seldom that young Irish upstarts are invited into the mainstream American chat circle but, back in the pre-internet era, they did the Letterman and Conan O’Brien shows with no fanfare or fuss. And when Rubyhorse fetched up on those sets, they were doing so because, for a time, they were simply too big a noise to ignore.

They were also zippy enough to briefly entice George Harrison out of exile and into their match-day squad in what might well one of the most high-profile cameos in the entire history of contemporary Irish music. Harrison contributed slide guitar to ‘Punchdrunk’, one of the stand-out cuts on the band’s second album, ‘Rise’, released in 2002, and although that back-story is well worn by now, it still bears repeating here if only to remind folk of the level at which the band, approaching its pomp, was batting.

In May, 1997, Ireland staged The Eurovision Song Contest at Dublin’s Point Depot for the seventh time: it was the fourth occasion in five years that the country had hosted the event. The show was presented by a television presenter, actress and singer from Waterford called Carrie Crowley and by Ronan Keating, then the lead vocalist and de facto frontman with a local male vocal group called Boyzone. Keating also wrote and, on the night, performed one of the most dismal interval pieces in the long and bizarre history of the competition and I’ve previously dealt with this in more detail in a piece here.

Boyzone’s story is as fascinating as anyone’s but it’s never been definitively told: the group has been the subject of numerous management-endorsed biographies that, sadly, never leave the surface. In essence, they were a knock-off and talent-free Take That who were routinely snapped in the tabloids leading champagne lifestyles on the back of Mi-Wadi-level ability. And all under the direction of Louis Walsh, a local booker in the best and worst traditions of Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose and whose nose for an opening and a quick-win was matched only by his devotion to those acts he represented. Which was often commendably fever-pitched, myopic and obsessive.

That same year, 1997, also marked the end of the line for The Sultans Of Ping, who were packing up their latex trousers for the last time just as The Frank And Walters were finally releasing their second – and still, to my mind, best – album, ‘The Grand Parade’. It had been an over-long and over-complicated gestation, at the end of which the air had well and truly been sucked from the balloons that populate the front sleeve of that record.

Universes removed, U2 were also releasing a new album. ‘Pop’ was easily their most ambitious and difficult record to date and the tour that accompanied it, ‘Popmart’, reflected the scale of that aspiration as clearly as it marked a saucy crossing of a Rubicon. U2 had earned the right to do whatever it was they wanted and ‘Pop’, dripping in irony and self-deprecation, was an almighty and unexpected undertaking.

Boyzone, The Frank And Walters, The Sultans Of Ping and U2 are, now as then, the unlikeliest of bedfellows and yet, when Ruby Horse looked into their hearts in 1997, these were the dominant local and national influences they might have seen. Two years after the release of a patchy, self-financed debut album, ‘A Lifetime In One Day’, they moved their operation to Boston and took their chances.

Boyzone’s commercial breakthrough across Europe, particularly in Britain, was a landmark achievement, the first time a home-grown, centrally-cast Irish pop act had achieved such cut-through. To their credit, they gave hope to the hopeless: unlike many of the country’s more critically-vaunted outfits, a generation of guitar-wielding indie bands primary among them, Boyzone had a real go at the markets. In which their blandness was irrelevant because, hitting landfall at the same time as The Celtic Tiger, they were simply a crass entertainment embodiment of that period in the country’s history: a pop group laced with Pyrite.

So against a background where U2 were radically re-defining themselves with subversive pop tropes, with Boyzone giving a fluoride sheen to clean, family-friendly entertainment and fetching up routinely on Top Of The Pops and with the optimism after Cork Rock ’91 well and truly withered on the vine, Rubyhorse found themselves at an interesting turn in the road. Out on a limb in every respect, they put their heads down and just followed their hearts, sight unseen, until they eventually found their moment. They may never have reached the right place at exactly the right time but they defiantly made the most of wherever it was they found themselves. But the fact that they did so in America – in Boston, initially – in an era before social media, means that tracts of their story remain, if not entirely unreported then certainly under-represented.

Rubyhorse had just cracked the Billboard Top Twenty with the lusty single, ‘Sparkle’, before an almost inevitable outbreak of bad luck infected their camp and up-turned their curve. The premature death of their booking agent and the usual record company re-structuring – with the attendant mess this almost invariably leaves in its wake – only amplified the distance back to Cork. Rubyhorse and Boyzone may have had little ever in common but both groups know only too well the sort of fracture that can develop between even the closest of friends after years intensely spent as jobbing entertainers at close quarters.

I’ve written previously about the magic that can often occur whenever like minds get together, however implausibly or infrequently, and take on the not insignificant business of making music. And, in so doing, find emotional connections and important conversation starters that might otherwise be beyond them. So when I bumped into Joe Philpott after many years at a friend’s wedding in West Cork – what else and where else ? – where he was doing his thing as part of a terrific local guitar ensemble, the conversation was only ever going in one direction.

Joe is one of the three remaining original members of Rubyhorse alongside the band’s bass player, Declan Lucey, and its formidable frontman, Dave Farrell. Drummer Gordon Ashe, who previously bashed the biscuit tins with Burning Embers, lives these days in Newport, Massachusetts while Owen Fegan, the band’s original keyboard player, also stayed behind in America, where he’s done stints as a graphic designer for the likes of Rolling Stone and Spin magazines.

And I found it quietly uplifting to hear that the band is still thrashing away, working on new material, dropping the odd new track and even venturing out to play live the odd time. But that, far more importantly given the insanity of much of what Rubyhorse encountered in those ten years to 2007, they’re still touch-tight. Helped, no doubt, by a lack of deadlines and an absence of itineraries.

The roads that surround them might have changed beyond recognition in the years since they first took flight as callow teens but now, holding down jobs, working their own businesses and rearing families, it might be that they’ve been belatedly liberated by the routine of the real world and the spectre of responsibility. In which case that next album could well be their most thoughtful and relevant yet.

PUBLIC ENEMY 30 YEARS ON

Thirty years ago this weekend, Public Enemy played Trinity College, Dublin. Kieran Cunningham, Chief Sports Writer with the Irish Daily Star, and someone who once had musical notions of his own, has written this excellent guest post for us. 

Joe Brolly was lying on his back on the cobblestones. Staring at the stars, wired to the moon.

Tuxedo, white shirt, polished shoes, proper bowtie. A walkie-talkie as big as his big, big head pressed to his ear.

Dungiven’s finest was trying to get in touch with the Starship Enterprise.

“There seems to be no sign of intelligent life anywhere, Captain, but the air…the air is tight and closing in. You’ve got to beam me up!”

Joe, a first year law student, was ‘working’ as security at the Trinity Ball.

This was one of the great cover stories. A gig on security meant a free pass to the show and it was easy to hide. It was a time before mobile phones so walkie-talkies were supplied. Large and unwieldy, they were a mass of crackles and static. Unpredictable and untrustworthy. Unlike Joe, of course.

So the temptation to go AWOL was huge. Joe didn’t resist…

The date was May 20, 1988, and the 30th anniversary this week is significant. It marks three decades since Public Enemy first played in Ireland. Open to correction, but I believe it was the first major hip-hop gig in Ireland.

I had a small part to play in them coming here, but will come to that anon. First, some context. Colm has written wonderfully well in this space on so many aspects of Irish music in the 1980s and 1990s, but I’ve read little over the years on the impact of the Ents circuit in colleges.

I’m more than a little wary of getting into the nostalgia business, as the danger of dressing up often bleak times in sentimental colours is always there.

Leeches on their arms and legs. Stomach purges, live burials, and ”warm hypnotic emulsions”, whatever on earth they are. These were just some of the cures used for nostalgia in different centuries.

You see, from the 17th to 19th century, it was actually classed as a disease. Things got so bad in Switzerland that the playing of a milking song, Khue-Reyen, was punishable by death. This was due to the supposed fact that Swiss soldiers were overcome with nostalgia and useless for battle if they heard it.

So I’ve always been wary of nostalgia about student days. Truth to tell, I stumbled into college. In the months before, I was giving serious consideration to giving it a miss. At the time, I was singing in a band called The Hour After, with three Gallagher brothers. The original of the species.

They were, like many in west Donegal, Glasgow born and bred before moving across the water with their parents. We bumped into each other through a mutual friend and found a shared obsession with Echo and the Bunnymen.

Only problem was they lived in The Rosses, 45 miles away from me in Glencolmcille, so we could only practise at weekends, and it was hardcore. Seven hours on a Saturday, seven hours on a Sunday.

Nobody had any money in the 1980s so, to cut petrol costs, I’d get a lift on the back of the drummer’s Vespa for one leg of the journey on the Saturday morning, staying in their house, and returning in a battered Hiace van on the Sunday night.

Our set-list was a diet of Bunnymen, Velvets, Iggy Pop and Doors covers, but we had notions. They were keen for me to commit full-time and give up on college, and I thought seriously about doing so. Luckily, I got sense.

Arrived into Trinity to study English and Sociology in September, 1985, wide-eyed and clueless. It was Fresher’s Week, so Front Square was lined with various stalls trying to entice the gullible to join everything from debating societies to sports clubs to the wonderfully named ‘Rock Nostalgia Society’.

By chance, I got talking to a tall Dubliner with a mohican and 12 hole Docs. His name was Barry Henry, and he was involved with Ents. We ended up as close friends, sharing a flat in London in the mid-1990s.

There were free lunchtime gigs in the Junior Common Room (JCR) above Front Gate that week, with A House among those playing. Bands I’d grown fond of from listening to Dave Fanning and now they were playing a couple of feet in front of me. This was mind-blowing. In that first term, among those to play in Trinity were the kick-ass Green On Red, part of the Paisley Underground movement – if you could call it a movement – in the US.

But the band that blew me away early on were The Triffids. Australian outlaws with a troubled and charismatic singer in David McComb, who tragically died at just 36 in 1999.

Dublin was a pretty grim place, in many aspects, back then. So many miserable cold bedsits. So much frustration and pent-up rage. Gigs were often violent affairs. Then there was the suffocating smog in the winter. Nothing to look forward to but a plane ticket to London or New York in search of work.

Things were so bad we used to drink Furstenberg.

But there were up-sides too. There was a remarkable energy to the place. Temple Bar was a very different place, and it rang to the sounds of dozens of bands rehearsing, the murmur of planning and plotting and scheming.

In places like the Coffee Inn, Well Red Cafe and Marks Brothers, plans for world domination were put in place. Often over steaming mugs of Nicaraguan coffee. It was a time of AIDs benefits and a constant hum of debate about abortion. Some things never change.

It was a time too when Trinity had a serious Gaelic football team, one that would have won a Sigerson Cup in different eras.

They did win the league but, in Sigerson, had the misfortune to come up against a genius called Maurice Fitzgerald in the red and black of UCC.

Joe Brolly was one of the star turns up front, but there were other fine players. Paddy O’Donoghue took the frees and went on to win the man of the match award when Kilmacud Crokes took the All-Ireland club crown in 1995. He was a selector with Pat Gilroy, another Trinity footballer, when Dublin won the 2011 All-Ireland and is now alongside Gilroy with the capital’s hurlers.

Ciaran Murray of Monaghan, Wicklow’s Conan Daye, Sean Kelly of Meath, Cavan’s Cian Murtagh … it was a fine team.

Of that side, I was particularly friendly with Terry Jennings, who I usually see these days at reunion gigs by The Blades. Terry is now heavily involved in coaching with Kilmacud Crokes, having made the sacrilegious leap across the river from his beloved St Vincent’s.

He had a spell with the Dubs under Pat O’Neill, coming up with one of the great lines to describe life as an inter-county fringe player. “I spent 10 years trying to get on the Dublin panel and six months trying to get off it.”

Terry is one of the most significant figures in the history of Dublin football, though, making a seismic impact when he was just seven years old.

In the 1974 Championship, the Dubs had struggled to an underwhelming victory away to Wexford first time out. Kevin Heffernan headed home in despair and, in the car with him were his wife, Mary, his wife’s friend Lily Jennings and her son, Terry.

Heffo was lamenting his fruitless search for a free-taker which caused young Terry to pipe up: “I’ve never seen Jimmy Keaveney miss one.” That planted a seed in Heffo’s mind. He persuaded Keaveney to come out of retirement, got him fit and his fellow Vincent’s man played a huge role in Dublin’s most glorious era.

Trinity might seem like an unlikely GAA hotspot, and it was Heffo who was the trailblazer. One of his early great days was playing for Trinity in the Duke Cup final in 1955. UCD ran riot in the first half, leading by 14 points at the break.

Trinity needed a strong second half and won a penalty almost from the throw-in. Heffo blasted it wide. The Kerry poet Brendan Kennelly was a Trinity teammate that day and later recalled his reaction.

“Having missed the penalty, the man went mad, and inside 10 minutes, he had the ball three times in the UCD net, and then added a several points,” he said:

“Heffo was a great full-forward because he was an efficient and stylish savage of a player, who was at his best when he was slightly humiliated. If he had scored the penalty, we would have lost. He might have relaxed. He might have lost his demon energy. But he didn’t, and we won, because he was suddenly humiliated into greatness.”

Humiliated into greatness. What a line.

Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, I’d inveigled myself on to the Ents crew. This involved many things. Putting up posters, humping PA systems around, the bonus of DJing in The Buttery on a Wednesday night with payment being five free pints.

In the pre-internet, pre-selfie, pre-smartphone world, things were simpler. One night, a band led by Neil McCormick, Shook Up!, were playing in The Buttery. McCormick went on to carve out a very successful career as a music journalist in the UK but one of his claims to fame back then was that he’d gone to Mount Temple with U2.

Sure enough, Bono was at the gig with his wife, Ali. With the innocence and bravado of youth – I went up and started chatting. Bono yapped happily away, bought his rounds and then dragged me to Hothouse Flowers, who were playing a late night gig in the Arts Block. That led to those on the door later asking ‘How do you know Bono? ‘I don’t’. But things were simpler, there wasn’t the same kind of distance then. We’d get to know The Stars of Heaven and Something Happens through Ents gigs and would play football with them in Herbert Park.

Colm has written here before about The Stars, a special band, and it brings to mind the influence of Eamon Carr – the only Irish journalist who should write an autobiography.

Eamon has had an extraordinary life, from a start in advertising to drumming with Horslips, to setting up Hotwire Records. Guru Weirdbrain was Eamon’s alter-ego, and he put together a fine compilation – Weird Weird World of Guru Weirdbrain on Hotwire in 1985. If featured everybody from The Stars of Heaven to The Golden Horde to The Real Wild West to Paranoid Visions and The Baby Snakes.

Modern journalism is in thrall to third-level colleges, with most recruits coming straight from media courses and with little life experience outside of that. It could do with more who have taken the road not taken. Like Eamon. Not many journalists these days have written poems and plays, or completed a PhD in History of Art.

I’ll always remember a press junket to New York a decade ago for a fight between Joe Calzaghe and Roy Jones Jr in Madison Square Garden. It was the week of Barack Obama’s elevation to the US Presidency so Gotham was buzzing.

After the Calzaghe/Jones fight, we headed to the press conference room, waiting for the two boxers to come in. I was sitting beside Eamon and he recognised a chap in the row in front of us. It was Richard Williams, then the chief sports writer of The Guardian. Eamon tapped him on the shoulder and introduced himself. “Remember me? I was on with Horslips when you were presenting The Old Grey Whistle Test.”

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The Go-Betweens, live at TCD. Courtesy of the author.

Many of Eamon’s buddies on Hotwire were Trinity regulars, and the Ball at the end of my first year was special. Dr and the Medics, who’d just been at number one in the UK with a cover of ‘Spirit in the Sky’. The Pogues, That Petrol Emotion, The Go-Betweens.

Remarkably, the latter played one of the free lunchtime gigs in Trinity week, with a stage facing the cricket pitch. Robert Forster recalled that day in his autobiography ‘Grant and I’:

We played on a makeshift outdoor stage in a corner of Trinity College. It had rained most of the morning, and the crowd were as amazed as the appearance of the sun as they were at the sight and sound of the group. Our final note bringing a downpour, and a rubbed-eye, did-that-really-happen? experience that was pure Go-Betweens.

A few months back, Jessica Moss uploaded a photo of that lunchtime gig to Twitter. Was taken aback by being able to spot myself to the left of the stage.

My friend, Barry Henry, had been elected Ents officer for my second year and I gave more and more energy to that side of college life. The plan to go for the job myself at some stage was hatching. It had considerable perks. A year out of studies with a modest wage but a free apartment on campus was part of the deal.

Another friend, Paul Gavin, ran for Ents in second year and got the gig. That turned out to be quite a year. I’d spent the summer of 1987 in London and returned to Dublin for the new term, hooking up with Paul to catch up on his plans. He was buzzing over having booked Bad Manners to play the Freshers Ball.

“Remember the big fat bald lad? They’ll be a great laugh.” “You do know they have a huge skinhead following, Paul?” “No…”

At the time, gangs of skinheads caused regular trouble at gigs, so we had the extraordinary experience of arranging a meeting between ourselves, the college authorities and a chap known only as ‘King Skin’. He promised to make sure that peace was kept, but Paul called in a few of the Trinity rugby team as extra security on the night to make sure. We all linked arms around the stage, facing the crowd. Hordes of skins surged forward again and again, storming on to the stage, with Buster Bloodvessel showing surprisingly nifty footwork to get out of the way.

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Poster for Showaddywaddy gig, courtesy of the author.

We’d do our best to haul them off, link arms, and go again. It was quite an adrenaline rush. A few months on, Paul had another brainwave. Showaddywaddy – rock ‘n’ roll revivalists who’d been huge a decade earlier – to headline the Valentine’s Ball with The Golden Horde as support. To make them feel at home, Paul had gone to a theatrical costume shop and hired a full Teddy Boy outfit – drape jacket, brocade waistcoat, bolo tie, drainpipe trousers, brothel creeper shoes. The works.

Paul and I went to meet Showaddywaddy beforehand and these middle-aged blokes from Leicester – dressed like middle-aged blokes from Leicester – looked at Paul’s outfit and just shook their heads. They did get in costume by the time the gig came around…

I had taken the plunge and ran for Ents officer in the annual Students Union elections but was the worst candidate in the world. Poor Barry was my campaign manager nad he must have been tearing his hair out. Terminally shy, having to stand in front of classes in lecture halls to give a stump speech was torture. I lost out to Edwina Forkin by about a hundred votes, and she became the first woman to hold the office. She did a great job too, memorably bringing The La’s over the following year, shortly after they released one of the great debut albums.

As part of his cunning plan to get me elected, Barry had found a way to get me on to the organising committee for the 1988 Trinity Ball. Around 30 bands play on the night, but the big headache was finding a headliner. There was one sleepy afternoon in the Ents office in Front Square when Paul and I were going through possibles, and we hit paydirt.

Paul was firing names at me. Band of Susans? Nah. The Shop Assistants? Nah. Voice of the Beehive? Meh. Dumpy’s Rusty Nuts? Oh, God. Napalm Death? No, no, no. Public Enemy? No…er, what, did you say Public Enemy? Yeah, they’re down to do a UK tour and might be on for coming over. Go for it, Paul, you have to go for it.

Hip-hop really came on our radar thanks to Chris Heaney, later the drummer with Stephen Ryan’s post-Stars outfit, The Revenants. Chris had spent a year studying in the States and augmented his collection of US hardcore punk with a few choice cuts from Def-Jam Records as well as NWA.

A few months earlier, Public Enemy’s ‘Yo, Bum Rush the Show’ had been voted as NME’s Album of the Year. At the end of 1988, they’d make it a double whammy, topping the NME poll with ‘It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’. They were becoming the hottest act in the world.

Paul talked to the promoters and, unbelievably, their price was within our budget. Chancing my arm, I told Paul to ask them if they’d do one of the free lunchtime gigs as well. Incredibly, they agreed. But then things hit a snag.

Chuck D was Public Enemy’s voice, leader and guiding intelligence. He shared the vocal duties with Flavor Flav, a crown prince with an outsized clock hung around his neck.

Professor Griff was the self-styled Minister for Information with Terminator X the DJ who supplied the block-rocking beats.

What was causing trouble was the two dancers, if you could call them that, who went by the name of Security of the First World. They wore paramilitary uniforms and waved fake Uzi submachine guns around.

This was only a couple of months after one of the most volatile periods in Northern Ireland history. In the space of a fortnight in March, 1988, things got particularly toxic. The killing by the SAS of three IRA members in Gibraltar had led to a gun and grenade attack on their funeral in Belfast by loyalist Michael Stone, killing three. In turn, the subsquent funerals led to an horrific incident where two British Army coroporals drove into the cortege, and were then abducted and killed.

Somehow, in a time before Google, the college authorities got wind of Public Enemy’s paramilitary trappings. Mindful of the optics of such a show so soon after events in the north, a crisis meeting with the Senior Dean. Contracts had been signed so it was decided to push ahead, but the Trinity authorities weren’t happy.

As things turned out, the lunchtime gig was a damp squib. Public Enemy clearly didn’t want to know, blasting out a half-hearted ‘Bring the Noise’, before leaving the stage. It was a public appearance, rather than a show.

But they made up for it later that night at the Trinity Ball with a coruscating, fire-cracking show. Playing on the main stage in New Square, it was a strange sight. The sons and daughters of the Dublin middle classes in tuxedos and ball gowns, roaring ‘Fight the Power!’ with clenched fists aloft. And Chuck D didn’t endear himself to the powers-that-be with a speech from the stage about the north and British imperialism. Joe might have even got up off the cobblestones to check it out.

The following night, Public Enemy played another Dublin gig – rocking McGonagle’s to the rafters. I slept it out.

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The Author in 1988. Courtesy of the author, 2018.

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. 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 a debut single, ‘Television Screen’, months earlier. Among those on the undercard were an emerging Derry outfit, The Undertones and The Vipers, a local mod-fused power-pop band among whose number was Brian Foley. He later fetched up alongside Paul Cleary as a member of The Blades.

The UCD event was marred by the death of eighteen year old Patrick Coultry, from Cabra, who was stabbed after a row broke out in the crowd during the concert.  John Fisher, who promoted the show and who went on to manage the career of the comedian, Dermot Morgan, recalls, 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 – a key player in the domestic entertainment industry.

She was 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. By so doing, they fundamentally democratised many of the long-established tenets that still under-pinned 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.

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 staged 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. 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 was 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.

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, perhaps, beyond which was another time and another place, far from the more traditional influences of establishment politics and Gaelic Games.

This is reflected in the full list of acts that performed there – local, national and international – that’s as varied as it’s 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 were 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. As has long been documented, U2 also assembled the bulk of a road crew plucked from the scene there, many of whom would serve them for decades thereafter. Most prominent of whom is 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. 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 just 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 it’s 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.  Its also an over-excited, fanzine-style sermon by Morley about the vagaries of the music business and the state of the Irish nation that concludes 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, its 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. 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 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 by a half-hearted 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. In several 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 [sic], 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 the Irish 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 excellent 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 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.

U2: WELCOME TO THE CABARET

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

  

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

But for now that count continues, steady and backwards.