As a college student in Cork between 1985 and 1989, The Triskel Arts Centre was where I believed some of the more off-beat cultural stuff in the city was going down. Located in an alleyway off of the junction of Washington Street and The Grand Parade, it was a bespoke venue that was certainly on my radar, albeit one that I visited sparingly. Over the years I saw a handful of excellent theatre performances there, as well as a couple of smashing live music shows. I can especially remember seeing Anthony And De Confidence do a ‘multi-media show’ there in 1988 and I also helped to promote a live Serengeti Long Walk gig at The Triskel, which was recorded by Ray O’Callaghan [no relation] of Poles Apart.
Later, as producer of the No Disco television series, I returned to film some acoustic sessions there, most notably with The Harvest Ministers, Martin Stephenson of The Daintees and the wonderful Kerry singer-songwriter, John Hegarty. My most recent visit to Triskel was in 2001 when, in another guise, we hired the theatre to premiere a documentary film a bout the footballer, Denis Irwin.
I’d always considered Triskel to be just a little bit beyond me, even if this had more to do with my own ignorance than anything else. That said, I recall very vividly the venue’s former Administrator, Robbie McDonald, making many an impassioned and literate contribution in the media on behalf of arts life in Cork city.
So I was genuinely taken aback when, in the Autumn of 1992, I was asked by Triskel to make a contribution to The Cork Review, a yearly over-view of cultural life in the city published by the Centre. My task was to offer a breezy snap-shot of how Cork was faring in the worlds of rock and pop music.
At the time I was free-lancing, writing largely about music but also working on a short-lived television series for RTE 2 called ‘Rant’. It was put to me that my piece could counterpoint some of the other, more formal pieces that had been commissioned for that issue of The Cork Review and it’s clear now that I followed that instruction very literally. And then some.
The best that can be said for my piece is that it’s enthusiastic and passionate :- I clearly had a bee in my bonnet about how incestuous and trite the local scene was but didn’t have the ability to articulate it properly. I’d started to believe that regional bands – and Cork bands, particularly – simply didn’t generate the national recognition some of them deserved. I also felt that some bands didn’t do themselves any favours when it came to making the most of what they had :- frustratingly, some really great young Cork bands just didn’t want to push on and were content to lord it over their peers in The College Bar or The Liberty Bar and no further. And of course this was – and is – absolutely fine too :- it’s just that I didn’t appreciate that back in 1992.
And then there were those bands who just refused or were unable to accept any form of criticism, however well-intentioned. This sensitivity was heightened in Cork :- a friend of mine says that no-one does ‘indignant’ like Cork people, and she’s right.
But 1991 and 1992 were real breakthrough years and so, with no little relish, I polished off my crystal ball, lowered the blades, and set to work.
Up Your Arts
All right then, so where do I begin ? I’m not really sure. It’s just that there have been so many bands, so many songs, so many singers in funny haircuts. Some have been great and some could have been great and some have been just plain horrible, but then that was never an issue. I mean, really ?
We laughed then and we still laugh now and at least we’ve got lots of little stories for when we’re walking home late at night and it’s raining heavily and we haven’t brought our umbrellas. But right now ? Well … Cork pop is in more eyes than ever before. And this time it’s in other people’s eyes too. And that makes for some change.
You see, Cork pop, just like Cork folk or Cork theatre or Cork classical, well, it’s horribly self-contained. It’s too bloody close and too bloody narrow-minded for its own good. We are wary of opinions and we hold lots of petty little grudges. And we’re still, like it or not, as vulnerable as we ever were. We’re paranoid as hell too, too slow to let go. Too many of us just don’t want to share our bands. We want to know all of the details all of the time. There should be room for talk, sure, but not for theft and lies and vendettas. But at least most of us understand that now. After all, hey, it’s only songs.
But Cork is cooler than most right now. Both The Frank And Walters and The Sultans of Ping FC have become big and notorious and have made great records and, for once, well, we’re not fooling ourselves. And sure, we’re had bands before but we’ve never had bands quite like these. These bands aren’t just big pop kids in their own underpants. Others have taken the message and bought the records. These bands don’t just exist in the pages of the music papers. They play to loads of people in loads of places. We’re not exactly sure where all of this is going, of course, but then neither are they. But at least they are going. And at least they’re thinking big. Narrow streets, you know, breed too many narrow minds. And this is a great big world.
But I’m not here to bitch and gripe, I guess. No. Cork is where I come from and it’s where I saw my first shows and it’s where I bought my first records and it’s where I wrote my first reviews and stuff. But for me, well, for me The Frank And Walters kind of say it all, you know. It’s no big secret, but I know them and I work with them and I’ve helped them from time to time and I still get all chilled-up when they bring around some new songs on a noisy cassette.
But The Frank And Walters are, quite probably, pop’s most unaffected band. And the more that I live and the more that I see, well, the more I’m impressed and the more I want to hear some more. Alright, so maybe they’re ‘essentially Cork’ or maybe they’re ‘whacky’ or maybe they’re ‘quaint’ ? I don’t know and, in all honesty, I’m way past caring. But they’ve got a barrowload of great songs and a free and easy talent. They just write the songs :- some of the best songs that I’ve heard and that’s for sure. And I know that they’ll sell tankerloads of records. And I know that they’ll be on bedroom walls. I just know. Believe me.
But The Frank And Walters, unlike too many bands, know that all of this is just one big rotten game. At least they’ve got songs, which is more than most. But they’ve also got a manager with a tight haircut and some wits, they’ve got luck because they make their own and they’ve got marketing and press and they’ve played every toilet from Dudley to Buckley and back. But it helps too when you’ve got parents who don’t gripe when you’re making yet another cross-channel call ; when you’ve got parents who help to put your posters up and who take out subscriptions to Spiral Scratch and who know Verve’s mid-week chart position. It all adds up.
But looking back is kind of fun too, you know. I mean, did we really try to record once in a studio which had no reel-to-reel recording tape ? Did we really wrangle a live show in U.C.C. just so that we could review ourselves in Hot Press ? Did singer Paul pose with his bass-guitar on the front of The Cork Examiner ? In colour ? Ah, the ways in which we were raised.
But there were others too. And there were other songs : and other times. Did Five Go Down To Sea really have songs called ‘What Happened Your Leg?’ and ‘Kelly From Killeen’ and ‘Carrots From Clonmel’ ? Did Sindikat really break a bass-guitar string during a City Carnival show in The Ivernia car-park ? And did singer Pat really drop his tartan punk trousers during a show in The Underground ? Were Censored Vision really serious ? Did Without The really have a song called ‘Sit on my face, Elaine’. Were there really fifty-three record company pigs in Sir Henry’s to see An Emotional Fish play at Cork Rock ? And did we really spend an endless weekend at Euro Rock two years ago, where we saw fifteen bands back-to-back ? And then The Sisters of Mercy ?
And then That Petrol Emotion ? And did Scarlet Page splay their legs and thank people during a song called ‘In The City’ in front of seventeen people ? In The Opera House ? And did Serengeti Long Walk really have a band logo that had a little man in a trilby hat ?
But there are little frustrations too, of course. Like that Cypress, Mine ! broke Up and that they never got to put ‘Last Night I Met The Man For Me’ out. Or that Lift aren’t huge. And that we still sneer and gripe and complain about everything and see things through parochial glasses and that. But hey, that’s pop and that’s life and we’re never quite sure what’s around the next corner anyway. I’m just glad that I’ve been and seen.
I like to think that the best is yet to come. One day I may even get to have a real job. But just not yet.
This piece was originally printed in The Cork Review, 1992. Published by Triskel Arts Centre.