U2

U2 AND THE ARC

U2 - UCC Downtown Kampus Cork 1979 copyright Pat Galvin

U2 – UCC Downtown Kampus Cork 1979 © Pat Galvin

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Ghostown: The Dublin Music Scene 1976 – 1980

 

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

 

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

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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 was 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.

 

 

NEW ORDER IN IRELAND

peace together

Picture courtesy of Pat O’Mahony

 

A few of us, caught in Nick Hornby’s slipstream, would while the time away drawing up lists of our own favourite music, making tapes and throwing shapes. It was harmless enough stuff, portable pub-games to backdrop those empty afternoons, decades ago, in O’Neills on Pearse Street and the balmy, mad nights everywhere else. But it was out of those sessions that we resolutely determined that the best, most consistent British singles bands of our generation were, in no real order ;- The Buzzcocks, The Smiths, New Order, The Jam, Madness and The Pet Shop Boys. In the same way that all self-respecting football fans knew that Arsenal enjoyed the longest run in the top flight of English football without being relegated, or that Notts County were the oldest professional football club in the world, the names of the masters of the shorter form were instantly to hand whenever the great singles came up for discussion.

When it came to the not insignificant matters of Joy Division and New Order, my late friend, Philip Kennedy was, as usual, quickly out of the traps. Years earlier, he’d taken a punt on the ground-breaking singles, ‘Blue Monday’ and ‘Confusion’ and, thereafter, canvassed vigorously on behalf of both bands. A few hundred yards down Redemption Road and right down the hill at Seminary Road, another neighbour of mine, Paul Daly, introduced me to ‘Ceremony’, which he’d brought home from London and which he too shared freely, proselytising. I adored it from the off and, even now, find it easier to take than the Arthur Baker/New York infused material, marvellous and all as it is. In school, a handful of us would marvel at the Peter Saville-designed art-work and, with set-squares and protractors that we had yet to de-commission, would work up imaginary designs for our make-believe bands on the back of Buntús Bitheolaíocht.

Paul Daly, who was a few years older than me and a couple of classes ahead of me in every respect, was among those who fetched up at New Order’s show at The Savoy in Cork in April, 1983 and, with his Walkman stuffed inside his belt-line, recorded the night’s events, as he’d often do at venues all over the city. On the evidence of his tape which, quickly thereafter, went through the hands of the alickadoos, it was a freakishly bad show for everyone concerned, the band stop-starting it’s way through a shambolic set as the crowd grew more impatient and rowdier. And, in respect of many of New Order’s earliest shows in Ireland, this pattern seems to have repeated itself routinely.

New Order were back in Cork again in January, 1986, this time at Connolly Hall, and they were just as disappointing. From my usual sport to the left of the sound desk, I found their inability to trigger the loops and tapes which, even then, scaffolded a serious spread of their sound, just ridiculous. On record, New Order were far removed from the tuneless, joyless d-i-y set and yet, on the live stage, were just as patchy as the worst of them. And from what I can remember, the band also lost themselves in a petty stand-off with some of the local gobdaws, one of whom threw what could have been a bottle or a glass towards the stage. Unlike The Smiths, who walked off in The Savoy a couple of years previously after similar eejitry from the front rows, New Order at least hung around to complete their set, patchy as it was.

But on record, they were a far more formidable force, a sparklesome outfit capable of real invention and no little magic and we gorged for ages on ‘Movement’, ‘Power, Corruption and Lies’ and ‘Low Life’. And the more that New Order developed their sound – and, I guess, the more technically proficient they became in so doing – the more they cemented their hand-prints in our gallery of favourites. But to this day, one of the most set-upon records in my collection is ‘New Order – Singles’ ;- side one, especially, is a mighty, almost perfect fifteen-track beast, from ‘Ceremony’ to ‘Touched By The Hand Of God’.

New Order hadn’t played live for several years when, surprisingly, they were named as one of several top-line acts due to perform at an ambitious, three-pronged live event planned for May, 1993, in support of an All-Ireland charity called Peace Together. Founded a year earlier and co-ordinated, in the spirit of Live Aid, by Stiff Little Fingers’ bassist Ali McMordie and Robert Hamilton, the drummer with The Fat Lady Sings, Peace Together was a curious, if undoubtedly well-intentioned project, a charitable trust ‘dedicated to the promotion of reconciliation between the people of Northern Ireland through music’. During a period in the long-running peace talks process that was ripe with optimism for a genuine breakthrough , the charity planned three, large-scale concerts that would go live simultaneously in Dublin, Belfast and London, billed as ‘1 day 2 help 3 cities 4 Peace’. Among the others originally confirmed to take part were Sinéad O’Connor, Peter Gabriel, Del Amitri, The Orb and a slew of notables ;- BBC Radio One was even planning to take live coverage of the Belfast leg, such was the scale and extent of the line-up.

But as with many such events, the theory and the practice soon collided head-on. The Belfast concert was cancelled at short notice after the hotel in which all of acts, including headliner Peter Gabriel, were billeted, was bombed. The scheduled London show had already fallen, apathy and general indifference the reasons cited by the organisers. Indeed the Dublin show too looked, for a while, as if it too wasn’t going to fly. Sinéad O’Connor was a late – and controversial – withdrawal and, for all of Hamilton and McMordie’s good intentions and impressive connections, the show, which took place weeks later than first announced, was a hard sell. So that when the event’s compere, Pat O’Mahony, formally opened proceedings in The Point Theatre on Saturday evening, June 5th, 1993, the revised line-up looked as if it had been scrambled together randomly and not even the presence of New Order half-way up the bill was enough to stem the bleed. The vast hall was half-empty on the night and the air had long been sucked from Peace Together ;- the eventual cast, featuring the likes of The Stunning and Liam Ó’Maónlaoí, could have been lifted directly from the previous year’s People In Need Telethon.

A couple of months previously, Suede had released their magnificent first album and, four weeks before the Peace Together show in Dublin, another Manchester band, Oasis, signed to Creation Records. New Order had just issued it’s first album of the 1990’s, ‘Republic’ and, four years since ‘Technique’, the ground had moved and the goal-posts had been moved. And so it was against this back-drop that I walked the quay down to Peace Together to renew acquaintances with them ;- New Order, as always, appeared to be utterly out of synch with the sound of the underground. And although I was greatly unconvinced by Peace Together and absolutely confused about it’s outright ambition, I really wanted the Dublin show to work.

I’d long tried to advance the cause of The Fat Lady Sings, the fine Dublin pop group I first saw play to a loose handful in The Buckingham in Cork years earlier ;- I’ve written previously about that show as part of a much longer piece on Cork’s venues, and that’s available here. I’d briefly met Robert Hamilton at a couple of their early shows ;- one of his off-stage tasks was to collect names and contacts after gigs for the band’s mailing list and I found him gracious, decent and generous with his time. A good scout. And it was easy to see exactly how himself and McBrodie attracted such high-profile names to the Peace Together project even if, from early, I suspected they may both have been in over their heads in respect of the live shows. And even though the charity’s legacy also included a small, community-focused recording studio in Belfast and a compilation album of suitably targeted cover versions by the likes of U2, Therapy, My Bloody Valentine, Therapy? and The Fatima Mansions, my concerns for the concerts proved to be well-founded.

My review of New Order’s performance, re-printed below, was originally published in the issue of Melody Maker magazine dated June 19th, 1993. Donal Murphy, a terrific photographer from Charleville, in North Cork and a central cog in the DropOut magazine machine, took a terrific snap of Peter Hook’s crotch to accompany the piece and went to almighty lengths to get the stills across to London over-night to make the production dead-line. It really was another world then.

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Picture courtesy of Daniel Harrison

 NEW ORDER,

PEACE TOGETHER, POINT THEATRE,

DUBLIN

They couldn’t really have picked something and somewhere more auspicious. It’s been four years and here are New Order, one of pop’s most wonderful treasures, sandwiched on this peace show thing that has long since become a complete irrelevance. They’re up there on a line-up that’s so weak that most of it, I imagine, is later helped from the stage into a fleet of waiting wheelchairs.

There are lots of very apparent spaces in this vast railway hall ; the peace connection and a town filled with apathy have quite obviously thrown everyone. A quick vox-pop in the foyer tell us that the kids, almost one year on, know nothing about Peace Together, it’s origins, it’s intentions and it’s background. Fewer still actually care any.

So it’s with some half-relief then that, after what seems like an age, New Order finally ramble on. And they’re completely dreadful, basically. But then again, who can really blame them ?

They haven’t played for years, they’re doing this, quite obviously, out of necessity and they’ve stood on the touchlines and watched this peace shambles fall into splinters around their very feet. It’s when Bernard asks, ‘Is there anyone here from Dublin ?’ and he’s hit back with ‘Manchester, tra-la-la’ that it finally dawns on us how failed this whole thing has been. Up front there are, perhaps, 500 hard Manchester lads, lots of United’s rather unseemly blue and black away shirt and loads of that silly bag-fashion we’d all thought had actually died with The Farm. We obviously thought wrong. The locals have stayed well clear of this and that’s for sure.

It nearly falls apart for New Order right at the start. Barely into ‘Regret’ and all of the tapes and machines and sequenced techno stuff go loopy for some seconds. Bernard stumbles, the band look all around them and they just about hang on for life. That was the portent. New Order, like the rest of us, never ever got into this at all.

For a start, all of that rambling stuff from ‘Brotherhood’ sounds as mundane and awkward now as it did then, and the band are making some curious choices. At least they do the quite alluring ‘World’, with it’s compelling little choruses, but despite Hook’s clenched fists and his desperate impatience to get anywhere near the front, New Order quite clearly don’t want to be here.

There’s some manner of clarity and half-baked grace in the middle when they do ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ and ‘True Faith’ back-to-back, with Hook flailing like a tulip in a gust. This is very much his show, but then you all knew that anyway. He still for all of the best cock-rock poses and at least has the good sense to treat this as nothing more than the piss-laugh it’s long since become.

Gillian hands us a snigger when she straps on a guitar and poses for four minutes without ever touching it. A surreal moment among many, that. And then Bernard stops to apologise for such a short stay telling us the band hasn’t really had the time to rehearse, but we smelt than an hour ago. After they encore ‘Blue Monday’, Bernard walks off in a different direction to everyone else, knowing in his heart that this was one great waste of time and space. He’s not alone. And I keep thinking about The Pet Shop Boys, for some reason.

Later, as Peace Together falls even flatter on it’s arse, New Order become some very distant memory. They may indeed be one of our finest singles bands ever, a curious pop-pearl among swine, but tonight they had as much presence as a string of abandoned and burnt-out cars. This should have been an evening to treasure, something to talk about tomorrow, something to swap notes on, to from which to eek out the bootlegs. It wasn’t.

Forgettable seems like too soft an adjective.

TOASTED SPECIAL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*SOURCE – juliangough.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HINTERLAND

Hinterland [noun] :- The back of beyond, the middle of nowhere, the backwoods, the wilds, the bush, remote areas, a backwater.

If nothing else, they certainly choose the name well. Twenty-six years after the release of their excellent album, ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’, you’ll struggle to find Hinterland mentioned in even the grass verges of contemporary Irish music history. Apart from their only long-player and the singles cut from it – the brooding ‘Dark Hill’ and ‘Desert Boots’, the breezy and most out-of-character chart hit – and one or two other minor issues, they’ve left little behind by way of prints and hard evidence. The usual on-line outlets are pretty scant on supporting detail and even the Hot Press digital archive which, to its credit, is usually a deep resource is, in this instance, practically empty.

And I suppose in many ways it’s always been thus. Hinterland never really ran with the pack and, even while signed to Island Records during the peak of the post-U2 insanity around Dublin, were generally regarded as an oddity. While lesser outfits made great welcomes for themselves, Hinterland were rarely seen and seldom heard ;- little was really known of them and they tended to give nothing away.

David Bowie’s death brought Gerry Leonard out from the shadows again and, once more, onto the national airwaves. The Dublin-born guitarist, now trading as Spooky Ghost had, for the previous fifteen years, been at Bowie’s elbow as a member of his backing band and as a sometime collaborator. Thirty years back, he was Donal Coghlan’s other half in Hinterland, a two-man operation that, according to Coghlan’s notes on a long-neglected website, formed in Denmark on January 7th, 1987.

Both Coghlan and Leonard had served their time on the Dublin circuit during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Leonard most notably with Above The Thunderclouds [who, for genealogists, also featured Joey Barry, later of Thee Amazing Colossal Men and Compulsion] and The Spies. Coghlan had featured in The Departure – alongside a former RTÉ colleague of mine, Declan Lucas – but, beyond that, had tended to keep his distance.

Hinterland fell out of nowhere, more or less. By 1988, Dublin was often characterised as ‘the city of a thousand rock bands’ and, in the aftermath of U2’s breakthrough in America, was certainly a city caught in the footlights. We’ve dealt with this in a couple of previous posts, and those are available here and here. If Dublin was defined then by any dominant sound, it was the sound of crudely lashed guitars. And if it had a defining career path, that path started on the live stages in the dive bars and venues around the borough. Dublin’s best known bands of the period – U2 themselves, Aslan, Something Happens, The Slowest Clock, The Stars Of Heaven, Blue In Heaven, A House, Guernica – were all compelling live draws who’d cut their teeth in the dens. Reputations were hard earned – and as easily lost – on the unsteady stages in The Underground, The Baggot Inn, McGonagles, The White Horse, The New Inn and elsewhere. And many’s the callow, impressionable four or five piece that was simply swallowed whole and spat back out into the spray, finished.

In the decades before smart technology so drastically re-wrote the rules of the process, most local recordings were made in the various studios that had sprung up around the city. Even the cutting of demo material was often newsworthy stuff to anoraks and alickadoos and word was quick to get around about who was doing what, with whom and where. Like another of their peers, Swim, Hinterland were far more comfortable within the confined parameters of the studio and, having returned to Dublin, both Coghlan and Leonard were working out of a small recording facility on Aungier Street. The two-man line-up gave Hinterland a real cohesion but, like Steve Belton and Pat O’Donnell before them [and maybe We Cut Corners after them ?], restricted their impact as a live act. Where, despite the many sequenced sounds, loops and tapes brought into play, the subtleties at the core of their material ran the risk of being lost in unreliable live mixes and unwelcoming venues.

Like Belton and O’Donnell – who eventually augmented their ranks and re-positioned themselves as The Fountainhead – Hinterland were managed by Kieran Owens, a canny operator with excellent ears who, like many of the acts he worked with, is often under-appreciated in the history of that period. It was Owens who over-saw the band’s deal with Island Records – signed on the strength of strong demo tapes alone – and who brokered Hinterland’s relationship with the young Newbridge-raised producer and engineer, Chris O’Brien with whom, on April 27th, 1989, Donal Coghlan and Gerry Leonard began work on what was to be the band’s first and only album.

Like many before and after them, Hinterland’s career was pockmarked by a series of unfortunate events, many of them outside of their control and, in essence, they never really left the starting gate. Which, in many respects, only adds to their lustre. ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’ is a brave, difficult record ;- it resides, for the sake of reference, in a drawer alongside ‘Til Tuesday, later-period Blue Nile and early-period Big Dish and it divided opinion on delivery. It’s a tender, gentle and unflinchingly personal collection of songs that, as well as piling on layers of nuanced sounds, doesn’t fear the space either. The record is at it’s most beautiful when it pauses for breath and crawls.

Chris remembers the record and the sessions that produced it fondly and was a real help to me as I sought to put flesh on some of my more crudely formed views on one of my favourite records. I owe him a real debt for dusting down his old diaries and for helping to join the dots.

‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’ was put down over a fourteen week period in Ropewalk Studios in Ringsend in Dublin, even if much of it arrived pre-packed. Deep, ornate foundations had been laid by Leonard and Coghlan in their own small studio, where the vocals, guitars and keyboards were supported by ‘an Atari sequencer running Pro24 software’. That the band opted to record the album locally was typical ;- common practice at the time was to take long-form recording projects abroad, usually to the U.K.. But Hinterland were happier around the familiar ;- Ringsend was practically in their own back-yard.

Ropewalk was Dublin’s first fully digital studio and, once the band and studio crew fetched up, the primary objectives were to create a live drum sound and to layer-up and polish the general soundscape. Chris remembers the whole process in detail ;- he particularly recalls Gerry Leonard’s guitar sound [‘one of the three most recognisable players in Dublin, along with Ray Harman and The Edge, especially in his use of finger-picking and when he played slide’] and Donal’s lyrics, most of which were rooted in the darkly personal. The sessions were intensive and the working days were long ;- the core crew worked from 11 every morning until after midnight and the only concession to type was the catering that was provided daily on site. At one stage, Island’s flamboyant owner, Chris Blackwell, dropped by – replete in sunglasses and shorts – to listen to the work in progress and to cast an ear on the material.

The band was augmented during the recording – and later when they toured – by Wayne Sheehy, one of the country’s most physical and capable drummers and who, in a past life, had played with Cactus World News, among others. And yet on several tracks, his role was pared right back, often confined to complicated rhythms and rolls :- it was as if Coghlan and Leonard were challenging him, testing the cut of his gib.

 

 

But the playing throughout is magnificent and the record boasts many special moments. ‘Dark Hill’ apart, a soft magic runs through ‘Handle Me’ which, in my view, is the record’s heart. An unsettlingly personal song, it looks into the future and pictures the physical disintegration of a loyal lover’s spirit and body. Elsewhere, ‘Stanley’s Minutes’ records the death of ‘a down-and out from the The Iveagh Hostel’ in the shadows of the Pro Cathedral in Dublin and, over a trade-mark guitar entry concludes with a real cut ;- ‘Thanks be to God it wasn’t suicide. There’s no such thing as suicide’.

And there are others too ;- ‘Senior Romantics’, with it’s breathy backing vocals by Leslie Mooney, the airy ‘Galway Bay’ and ‘Dive The Deepest’ among the diadem. And although ‘Desert Boots’, with it’s rattle and pluck, is out of character with both the rest of the record and with the band’s song-book generally, the warm, Mumford-esque gallivant name-checks St. Anne’s Park in Raheny, The Dandelion Market and The Burrow Beach in Sutton on it’s breezy journey through Dublin city. It is, in its own way, as poignant a local snapshot of youth as Whipping Boy’s ‘When We Were Young’.

I can remember the first time I clapped eyes on Hinterland. ‘Jo Maxi’ was a popular youth series that dominated the tea-time schedules on what was then Network 2 during the late 1980s and that, to it’s credit, consistently supported all manner of new music, much of it Irish. Sat there one evening on a small studio rostrum in his fresh black denims, stacked-sole shoes and fisherman’s hat, Donal Coghlan looked typically disconcerted, humble. Gerry and himself gave a basic synopsis of Hinterland’s story, mentioned their deal with a major label and then one of the presenters cued a short clip of the ‘Dark Hill’ video.

Apart from a subsequent Late Late Show appearance in support of ‘Desert Boots’, a couple of minor jousts with myself on another youth series, ‘Scratch Saturday’ and an afternoon encounter with Ray D’Arcy and Zig and Zag on ‘The Den’, not a whole lot more remains in the video archive. The album came and went and the band headed out into the open in support of it, playing one particular blinder in De Lacy House in Cork and opening for Prefab Sprout [with whom, philosophically, the band was very aligned] on the ‘Jordan : The Comeback’ tour in The Point Depot in Dublin. ‘Desert Boots’, with it’s cutesy video and wide-screen notions, generated an amount of popular traction and airplay but, even then, you suspected that Hinterland were just a band out of time, destined to forever play catch-up.

In a terraced house in Ealing, West London, in 1991, myself and my landlord, Ken Sweeney, would marvel at them. Ken, who was recording for Setanta Records as Brian, had rescued me from a deranged set-up in a squat in Peckham and now, safe and warm and far away across town, we’d swap war stories in the evenings and talk long into the nights about Miracle Legion, Into Paradise and The Go-Betweens. Hinterland too were de-constructed at length in Ealing ;- I’d been sent a copy of ‘Resurrect’, a four-track E.P containing three new songs and also ‘Love Quarantine’, the magnificent ‘Desert Boots’ B-side that the band felt didn’t quite fit onto ‘Kissing The Roof of Heaven’, and we gorged on it. Donal and Gerry were looking ahead to a second album and were flouting their prowess with a handful of optimistic and ambitious songs, ‘Born Again [Excuse The Pun]’ most memorably among them.

But the ship failed to find port and, by 1994, Hinterland more or less ceased to be ;- the band’s efforts to crack the American market were unsuccessful and, eventually, they were let go by their record company. Hinterland exited the stage just as they’d entered onto it ;- quietly and without fanfare and to the sound of a loyal few clapping. When, years later, Donal Coghlan made a cameo appearance on Brian’s second Setanta album, 1999’s ‘Bring Trouble’, it completed a circle of sorts and also reminded a handful of us of what could, should and might have been.

By that stage, Gerry Leonard had already left Ireland for New York and, as he did so, Donal Coghlan repaired closer to home, coming to grips, literally, with the M.S., diagnosed years previously, that was impacting on his mobility, if not his spirit. It was only after the band had released ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’ that he revealed his long struggle with the degenerative illness and, by so doing, maybe cast another light into some of the more personal songs on that album.

I last met Donal in 2000 in his apartment in Dublin city. He was in chipper form, confined increasingly to a wheelchair and was a proud father to a young son, Zac. The previous year he’d directed his first short film, ‘The Spa’, and had written another short, ‘Handy Andy’, both of which were made through the Lights, Disability, Action initiative and had been screened at The Galway Film Festival. He was, as always, terrific company, clear in his own mind that he’d left able-bodied society and wasn’t returning, already busy as a campaigner and advocate for disability issues.

I think about Donal Coghlan quite a bit and regularly return to ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’ and, when I heard Gerry Leonard on radio paying tribute to David Bowie recently, he sprung across my mind once again. Donal Coghlan’s writing may not have re-defined popular music and the way we listened to it but, in his own way, has left it’s own kind of under-stated, under-regarded magic as a legacy.

Hinterland clearly mean little in the recent history of Irish popular music and, understandable as that is, they’re in good company. Into Paradise, Jubilee Allstars, Pony Club and Ten Speed Racer are among the notable others who, outside of the blind sadism of die-hards and anoraks, rarely command the acknowledgement they’re due. But ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’, with it’s stories and it’s screams, is always worth re-visiting and, knowing more now than we ever did back then, deserves an all-over re-appraisal.