I first met The Frank And Walters in Cork in the summer of 1990, back when I was rapt and ready to roll into the breach on their behalf, whatever the job. The years since have taken all of us to places we’d probably dreamt of but hardly expected to see in the flesh. And while I no longer see them as often as I should, this doesn’t mean I consider them any less than I used. These days I‘m their eternal shadow, a ghost who stalks.
Morty McCarthy was the dealer. Morty and I were first introduced by a school-friend and I was quickly taken by his breath of reference. He was as comfortable talking about The Primitives and The Fall as he was about Junior B Hurling in Ballinlough ;- he was a genuine one-off and there was no side to him. Morty was also the youngest person I knew who held a legitimate driver’s licence. He drove a delivery van for a living, spending his days on the roads with a bagful of cassettes and a cargo of cash and carry for company.
In another of his guises – as editor and writer-at-large on a fanzine he ran, Sunny Days – he’d mention gigs he’d seen in places like Myrtleville, Youghal and Kinsale. And it was at one of those shambolic shows that he’d snagged a copy of an early Frank And Walters demo tape. Which, true to form, he’d copied and passed on.
I was into my twenties, gormless and arsing around, looking for any sort of summer distraction as long as it involved music and sport. The song of the season was ‘Put ‘Em Under Pressure’, sound-tracking Ireland’s first ever World Cup Finals campaign in Italy. But fans of Cork GAA – Morty very prominent among them – were revelling during a heady couple of months in exploits far closer to home.
It was live music that kept us hydrated. A Derry band, The Carrellines – fronted by Paul McLoone – won the Carling/Hot Press Band Of The Year in Sir Henry’s. During the June Bank Holiday weekend, Meat Loaf headlined the first of a new three-day event in Thurles called Féile, supported by an undercard that also featured Dublin’s Into Paradise and Thee Amazing Colosssal Men [with Garrett ‘Jacknife’ Lee on guitar]. Back in Henry’s, meanwhile, the yearly Cork Rock bash attracted the usual coven of record company executives, lured by the prospect of landing An Emotional Fish.
Prince played Pairc Ui Chaoimh and featured a king-sized bed as part of his stage show, although fears that he’d blaspheme the sacred ground with his tarty pop proved unfounded, sadly. As I reported at the time in The Cork Examiner, the most shocking thing about the Prince show was how unshocking it was. Those expecting a non-stop erotic cabaret were left disappointed and, on the long walk back up The Marina, some Pairc Ui Chaoimh regulars remarked how monthly County Board meetings were usually far more explicit.
An independent music retailer, Comet Records, had opened on Oliver Plunkett Street the previous year and quickly became a focal point for local anoraks. That small shop often resembled an AA meeting room for pale young indie addicts seeking peer support from those with similar problems. In the best traditions of ‘the exotic local record shop’, the in-house soundtracks were varied and mixed, veering from the extremes of the underground to the erratic sounds of Cork’s suburbs. In part an outlet, refuge and primary source, the shop had already became yet another tentacle of what was now a burgeoning local scene. Into which came The Frank And Walters.
By the end of September, Cork’s hurlers and Gaelic footballers had delivered a memorable All-Ireland double and the three-piece from Bishopstown had started to move through the gears.
It was on the wall of Joe Mac’s coffee shop in The Queen’s Old Castle arcade that I first clocked the name :- The Frank And Walters. The Queens was a real magnet for posers, wannabes and goms [with myself prominent among them] and its insides were lined with posters advertising live gigs of every hue. All sorts of sub-species – Goths, Mods, Cureheads and decrepit old punks, primarily – would congregate around the Patrick Street entrance, some of them often bearing instruments and amps. Out front, Daunt Square was one of Cork’s most exotic pitches, where the ghosts of early Microdisney hung in the air around their old rehearsal room, down by what was once Woodford Bourne’s wine-shop. And, when the Square wasn’t hosting left-wing political discourse and intellectual loitering it was, maybe more importantly, leading the way into Mandy’s, then Cork’s stellar fast food restaurant.
I met them for the first time in The Enterprise Bar at the end of Barrack Street on the night that England played West Germany in a famous World Cup semi-final :- July 4th, 1990. They’d recently recorded three songs in Studio Fiona in Fermoy with Brian O’Reilly from Loudest Whisper working the desk and were seeking a kind ear and good advices. And I gave them some of what they were looking for.
Within minutes of our first session together in their rehearsal space in Brother Cusack’s room in Sullivan’s Quay school, I was already behind their eyes and under their skin. They were electric and clueless, loud and ambitious and, twenty-five years later, I don’t think I’ve ever loved them or obsessed about them more.
Once we’d plugged up, it was obvious enough how exceptional Paul was. Apart entirely from his song-writing, his incredible voice was a real boon. He’d struggle manfully with the higher end of his register, but that rarely stopped him from pushing and pushing, often to the point of fracture.
But he knew how to mind himself too. Proudly tee-total, hot water with honey and lemon was often his twist after rehearsals. And the years have been kind to him ;- he looks younger now than he did back then and his voice hasn’t diminished with the years either. So much so that his vocal performance at the band’s show in The Opera House last October was among the finest I’ve heard from him.
In the other corner, Paul’s brother, Niall, played guitar loudly and aggressively, as if he had his axe in a headlock and was frenzily mashing it with a breeze-block. You’d often have to roar at him to get a response and he’d invariably lash right back at you. He kept a store of old riffs on a cassette tape and, whenever the occasion demanded, would reach in and pull a pre-made guitar line from the stash.
Behind the traps, Ashley pulled the whole thing together. He was the spiritual leader of the band, its heartbeat and heart-throb in equal measure and a man for whom league positions [Cork City and Chelsea, strictly] meant as much as chart positions did. He was a fine, sinewy drummer to boot, always nice and busy around the kit.
Outwardly at least, The Franks cut an absurd dash with their loons and big hair but, beyond that, they took their music very, very seriously. Ashley had even run off a stock of gammy business cards that bore the words ‘Frank And Walters, Indie band’, his home address in Bishopstown and a contact number. And those cards captured every contradiction about them :- they were a serious lot, clever young men playing the fool only never at the expense of the music.
The first year disappeared in a blur. Paul had a heap of material ready to go and, within monhs, we’d knocked out another pair of decent demos, one in Caroline Studios in Blackpool and another back in Brian O’Reilly’s in Fermoy. During rehearsals in the school we’d look at how the songs started and ended, always mindful of how they’d detonate when played live. Several of the early songs – ‘The Never Ending Staircase’ and ‘Davy Chase’ especially – sped up as they developed, ending in a blur of guitars and drums. And we always kept a close eye on the clock, editing savagely, and very few of the songs now exceeded three minutes in length.
Often we’d just pull the songs asunder and re-position the various bits, noting the new structures in chalk on the broad blackboard that dominated the room. Niall would regularly locate suitable middle-eights and bridges from his collection of pre-made riffs and we’d routinely transplant bits in and out.
The band had already flirted with one record company, Revolver Records, the London-based label that issued the first Stone Roses releases, and had been encouraged down a particular path as a result. ‘Indie dance’, they answered once when I asked them to describe the band’s sound.
But I heard in them, rather, an out-and-out pop band with a mischievous indie streak and a lot of tradition in the backbone. To me they were nodding to bands as diverse as The Wedding Present, The Beatles, The Monkees and that other incendiary three-piece, The Jam. There are other clues too, especially in the songs they’ve covered over the years and ‘I’m a Believer’, ‘Funky Cold Medina’, ‘The Model’, Julian Cope’s ‘Elegant Chaos’ and ‘Pop Muzik’ by M suggest a far broader breath of reference than you’d think.
But they drew too from the Irish showband traditions and, with their stage uniforms and the slaggy banter led from behind the drum-kit, were far more Dixies than they were Pixies.
The straight Franks And Walters narrative is well worn by now and, as a no-frills biog, ‘Irish’ Jack Lyons’ 2007 book, ‘A Renewed Interest In Reading’ is the last word and won’t be bettered. But on the back of last October’s twenty-fifth anniversary performance at The Opera House in Cork, its maybe worth re-tracing the band’s steps and establishing some sort of retrospective context.
My own bottom line is clear enough :- The Frank And Walters are one of the great contemporary Irish popular music stories but seldom get the respect they deserve for that. A moot point, perhaps, but the band’s first ever Late Late Show appearance, for example, occurred in 2011, twenty years after the release of their first EP. Notwithstanding the vagaries of television and the demands of producers and bookers, just how do we square that ?
But The Franks are a resilient lot who have an unshakable belief in their own ability, matched only by Paul’s devotion to the healing power of the song. To that end, hes easily one of the most consistent and fluid song-writers the country has ever produced, and with a pretty serious body of work behind him at this stage too. But is anyone really listening ?
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Dublin was routinely billed as ‘the city of a thousand rock bands’. Which would have been a fine marketing tag-line were not most of those thousand bands unfit for purpose. Jim Carroll and myself wrote at length around this time about how the most pressing, urgent new music in Ireland was emerging in the regions and, between us, cited The Cranberries, Therapy?, The IRS, Engine Alley, Toasted Heretic, The Sultans and The Franks. We coined a counter-slogan – ‘Dublin Is Dead’ – more out of a sense of stubborn devilment than anything else and proselytized widely, keen to present a growing nationwide scene as more than just a regional curio. Notwithstanding the gifts bestowed on Stephen Ryan, Dave Couse and a smattering of others, most of the Dublin guitar bands operating at this time usually boasted two songs – one fast, one slow – that leant heavily on REM’s magnificent 1985 album, ‘Fables Of The Reconstruction’.
The Franks, of course, sounded nothing like REM and, more importantly to me, didn’t want to sound like REM either. A point not lost on Keith Cullen, who heard in them the kind of recklessness that was already hallmarking his emerging Setanta imprint. And so they fled to a hostel in South East London and instead took their chances in England.
Run from a squat in Camberwell, Setanta had already developed a niche as a launch-pad label – sussed, connected and regarded – if not so much in Ireland then certainly with the London-based music press. But before The Franks left Cork, there was one last piece of business.
On the sunny afternoon in June, 1991, when the Cork Rock event opened in Sir Henrys, we’d arranged a private rehearsal back in Sullivan’s Quay School for one of the visiting major labels, out of sight and away from the numbers. The band laid into a cracking short set, debuting a belting new song, ‘Fashion Crisis Hits New York’, alongside regular set features like ‘Walter’s Trip’, ‘Angela Cray’ and ‘Davy Chase’ and, five feet away, the magic was lost on The Man, who sat impassively throughout. Later that weekend, The Frank And Walters levelled Cork Rock with more or less the same set and the word was out in earnest. They were recording for Setanta before Halloween.
I followed them to England during the early weeks of 1992, ostensibly to help out at Setanta while earning a crust working as a freelancer with Melody Maker magazine. The Franks had a head-start on me and, settled in Wimbledon, were receiving good notices for their first EP releases, which were produced by Dave Couse of A House. Pretty soon the band was playing the industry and even dining out on it. Within a year The Frank And Walters were on the pay-roll at Go Discs and I was headed back home, putting together a new music television series for RTÉ Two called No Disco.
I worked with them – formally, for the last time – on the songs that formed the spine of their debut album, pushing them hard in an echoey rehearsal room in a small industrial unit in Camberwell. We shaped the edges of many of the songs that would back-bone ‘Trains, Boats And Planes’ and, of the newer songs, ‘Time’, ‘John And Sue’ and ‘Transpotters’ were well basted before they left the room.
And I was there too in the band’s house in Morden in South East London when Paul played me a spartan version of ‘After All’ for the first time on an acoustic guitar. It was one of the last songs written for the album and, over the course of an hour in the kitchen, we’d re-worked it, harmonised it and, if memory serves, written a middle eight for it.
There have been far better Frank And Walters albums since and there will be many more again, but none have attracted anything near the same level of attention as the eleven-track debut. But in the year when the band releases its seventh studio album, the omens are good :- when they’re playing the seldom heard ‘Russian Ship’, you know there’s something going off in the cauldron.
Following the highly-charged triumph at The Opera House show last October, I recalled two events from around the release of the band’s fourth album, ‘Glass’, back towards the end of 2000. The first was a review of that record on an Irish music website called Cluas that savaged them as brutally as they’d ever been savaged anywhere. The other was a bizarre appearance on an afternoon television programme on RTE where they mimed their way listlessly through the lead single on that album, ‘Underground’. While they weren’t necessarily being counted out on the canvas, the band that once shared a dressing room at Top Of The Pops with Paul McCartney were now holding court on Live At Three with Marty Whelan.
I hooked up with Paul and Ashley that afternoon and we had a decent chat about the record and about how things were, laughed in all the right places and I lauded them about the album. But it was hollow enough stuff on both sides of the table and I couldn’t get over just how lethargic and miserable they seemed. Maybe I’d caught them on a bad day – or maybe I just amplified the lethargy out in them – but the joy that once so clearly defined them was missing.
The Frank And Walters may not have appreciated it at the time, but ‘Glass’ is now one of the primary defining moments in their history. Produced by Flood and engineered by Rob Kirwan, it’s the band’s most difficult album by an ocean and, Paul’s vocals aside, sounds nothing like what went before it. They’d dropped a couple of hints on the previous album, ‘Beauty Becomes More Than Life’, which featured more keyboard sounds and samples than previously. And they’d also added a fourth member, Sarah De Courcy, to fill out the live sound.
But the bleeps, tinny synths and workmanlike beats couldn’t mask the fact that ‘Glass’ was the very difficult sound of a band coming apart at the seams. And so it proved :- it was their last record for Setanta and the last to feature Niall as part of the band. And yet, beneath the sound of implosion, a pulse was still audible. ‘New York’ [revived in The Opera House and starring the well-known Cork soprano Mary Hegarty performing the female vocals originally taken by Marlene Buck], the magnificent ‘Talking About You’ and ‘Isn’t It Time’ and the cracking, old school sing-along ‘Forgiveness’ were all defiant and proud. As was the aforementioned ‘Underground’ which, I am convinced to this day, was magpied the following year and re-versioned as ‘The Sound Of The Underground’, eventually a debut hit for Girls Aloud. But against that, a distinctly average record closed with two of the worst Franks songs ever committed to tape, ‘I Will Be King’ and ‘Looking For America’, studio-doodles both.
During the period immediately following the release of ‘Glass’, the band couldn’t get arrested and, despite sporadic appearances here and there, the thrill had gone. It took them ages to re-group and re-calibrate and, with Niall no longer in the picture, it was six years before their next album. And a pretty striking return to form it was too, with the title revealing the mood in the camp :- ‘A Renewed Interest In Happiness’.
The Franks had every opportunity and every good reason to check out for good after ‘Glass’. That they choose instead to go back to first principles and re-appraise where they were most comfortable only confirms the view that I’ve held since those early days back in 1990 :- that the Keating-Linehan axis is simply unbreakable.
The band has now outlived most of those magazines that slapped them on their front covers way back, the label that issued its first records, the website that gave them their most aggressive pasting and most of the bands they shared the stage with back in Sir Henry’s at Cork Rock in 1991. Friends, family and fellow travellers have been lost along the way too. But as they prepare to release yet another album, haven’t The Franks finally put the last remaining stereotypes to the sword ? And doesn’t such a rich and expansive catalogue stretching back so long warrant some sort of sound critical footing ?
I’ve seen The Frank And Walters play live more than any other band and I honestly couldn’t believe how fresh and optimistic they sounded at The Opera House, belting through a long set that featured no new material.. On the trip home I drafted an alternative set-list of songs they didn’t perform on the night but that would have knocked the socks off of any audience in the country. I gripped my fist tight on the walk across Emmet Place, clenched my teeth and prayed a silent ‘Yesssssssss’.
Little did I suspect, back in the summer of 1990, that we’d still be here, years later, picking over The Frank And Walters. In one way, we should have all moved on years since but very often its only by looking back that can we truly comfort ourselves in the present and the future. All the more so when there’s so much history in the can and water under the bridge.
Its to The Franks’ credit that they’ve stayed the distance, lapped the flashier pace-makers and are still running personal bests. The last twenty-five years are pock-marked with many, many highlights and just as many surprises and land-mines. I can’t really recall a record collection of mine they weren’t in and can’t forsee one where they won’t hold centre-stage. With the band’s best work still to come, God knows what they’ll sound like in 2040.