I wrote a weekly music column in The Sunday Tribune newspaper for a number of years during the mid and late 1990s. Helen Callanan, the editor who hired me and Matt Cooper, who inherited me, had far more pressing matters to deal with on a weekly basis and so I was usually left alone and given a fair amount of licence. Sharing the same space once a week with some of the finest journalists and feature writers in the country, I believed I was doing the paper a real service but, reading back on some of those columns now, I can’t believe how crude some of my writing was. Having strong opinions was all very well and good but expressing those succinctly and clearly in print was far more difficult.
The years I spent contributing to The Sunday Tribune paralleled with Boyzone’s development from the in-joke unveiled on The Late Late Show in 1993 to the stadium-sized cabaret turn that was manfully working the European circuit a matter of years later. Boyzone were Ireland’s first manufactured pop band of real scale and had a couple of interesting side-stories, most of which only emerged after the group split up. I thought they were dire, and certainly nowhere near as convincing as Take That, the popular, clean-cut British boy band on whose blueprint Boyzone was conceived and whose ambitions they shared. But I also thought that Ronan, Keith, Mikey, Stephen and Shane were just too easy a target and so, initially, I tended to steer clear of them in print. When I wasn’t gushing about my latest local fancies, there were far more legitimate targets for the negative stuff and, when it came to Boyzone, I just stood back and applauded their audacity, marvelling at the scale of their necks.
I’d met Louis Walsh, initially Boyzone’s co-manager, the odd time: he’d hawked a couple of moderately decent indie bands around the scene in his time and, for all of his blather, seemed harmless enough. But the emergence of Take That, East 17 and The Backstreet Boys had awoken a different sort of yearning in him and he’d re-defined himself as an out-and-out puppetmaster. The Irish media market had recently expanded too and, as more and more newspapers and radio stations entered the local fray, Walsh wasn’t short of champions. His mobile number was, and remains, one of the most gettable in Ireland and he was often as regular a fixture in print and on the airwaves as any of his charges.
One of the more interesting aspects of Boyzone’s success was how Walsh so manipulated the media in Ireland – and later in Britain – to hype an act that was severely limited, even within the narrow parameters of its genre. Indeed the access to and the ease with which Walsh toyed with the media is far more interesting than anything his numerous groups have ever committed to wax. With the odd exception, this aspect of the Boyzone story goes largely unremarked. Louis Walsh knows particular parts of pop music history intimately but, when you’re dealing in snake oil, its important to know the system to fully realise the concept of supply and demand. In an emerging media market, he provided regular parcels of good, sneery copy: he was ready, available and loud.
The pair of us had a couple of decent rows over the years and, to his credit, he always defended his corner stoutly, often using the darker arts he’d learned during his long apprenticeship around the chicken supper circuit. Like many of the Svengalis who preceded him, he favoured a handful of lackeys in the media to which he’d routinely drip all manner of nonsense, most of which, in the spirit of churnalism, made its way straight to print or onto air, no questions asked. Walsh dealt exclusively and comprehensively in flat earth news and, for years, he had no shortage of takers.
In May, 1997, RTÉ hosted that year’s Eurovision Song Contest live from Dublin’s Point Depot. Boyzone’s leader and primary vocalist, Ronan Keating, presented the annual competition for European broadcasters alongside another emerging television personality, Carrie Crowley who, among her many talents, was a genuine blues singer with a serious range. Keating was also asked to write and perform – with Boyzone – the interval piece that buttressed the show on the night. After Bill Whelan’s ‘Riverdance’ had detonated so spectacularly during half-time at a previous Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin in 1994, Keating was on a real hiding to nothing, and unfairly so. With so much attention lavished on the interval performance, his songwriting – remarkably unremarkable – was about to be laid bare.
Irked by suggestions from the fringes that Boyzone were really just a hand-cut karaoke-act in smart suits by Louis Copeland, Louis Walsh would always take the bait and spring to robustly defend Ronan Keating, and with no little elan. He went so far as to fancifully bracket him alongside the likes of Elton John and George Michael as a classic song-writer in waiting. Loyally selling his act on the one hand, Walsh was easily bored on the other and, one sensed, was simply amusing himself at the expense of a small cluster of impressionable hacks, disc jockeys and broadcasters. With way more charisma and, ultimately, far more staying power than any of his acts, the more his own star developed, the more he could get away with. To this end he was liable to say anything.
Walsh never struck me as the sharpest knife in the drawer and, in the years since, I’m not especially surprised that he’s found considerable mainstream fame as a comedy side-kick on a formatted family entertainment show. But for all his ability to dole it out, he has, like many others with a sense of entitlement, often had difficulty taking it back. He took the hump royally after a Sunday Tribune piece I wrote about Keating’s Eurovision Song Contest interval composition, ‘Let The Message Run Free, and even wrote to my employers in a fit of pique to complain me for my treason. He subsequently banned all of his acts from appearing on any of the television programmes I was involved with and, on the presumption that anyone was remotely interested, raced to The Sunday World to tell them as much. For the record, I hosted several of Louis Walsh’s acts on prime-time television programmes over the years and, in so doing, played my own part in keeping the wheel turning.
Louis and Ronan Keating later fell out and, by all accounts, went their separate ways. One presumes that the Svengali may have revised his views on his former charge’s writing abilities somewhat since and, who knows, he may even agree with my own critical assertions now ? Meanwhile, in a parallel world, my three young daughters love Louis Walsh: they know him from The X-Factor and think he’s funny, charming and absolutely fantastic. Which is far more than they think of their father.
My Sunday Tribune piece ran on Sunday, May 11th, 1997 and we’ve re-produced it in its entirity here, under it’s original headline, ‘When critics are loyal to a fault’. We’ve made minor grammatical and syntax corrections to the original copy.
WHEN CRITICS ARE LOYAL TO A FAULT
One of the most dangerous aspects of rock music criticism [or any other form of criticism, for that matter], sits in the co-relation between head and heart, where sentiment and loyalty are set against reality and fact. A stubborn refusal, if you will, to see the wood for the trees in order to maintain history’s legacy of balance and a peace of mind of sorts.
It happens all of the time, of course, and we’ve all pleaded guilty on occasion, although to varying extents and in varying contexts. But twice in the last fortnight, however, we’ve seen two very blatant and cowardly refusals by the mass music media, both at home and abroad, to call the real shot. And to those of us who actually genuinely care about such things, that’s a trouble.
The Seahorses, a band formed by The Stone Roses’ main man, John Squire, and the increasingly Ronan Keating-led Boyzone may, on record and on paper, at least, share nothing really in particular. What’s come to bind them over the last two weeks is a mass critical fawning and a marked media reluctance to get blunt in the cold light of bad standards.
Keating’s commissioned Eurovision piece, ‘Let The Message Run Free’, premiered to over three hundred million viewers last weekend, was the defining proof as far as I’m concerned [if, indeed, proof was ever really needed] that he and his band are seriously out of their depth on the adult stage and positively gasping, right now, for air.
As the writer of the Eurovision interval piece, Keating was always going to struggle in past company, following in a proven and trusted line of local heavy-hitters. Bill Whelan’s ‘Riverdance’ score has already, quite rightly, been feted by the international industry while both Dónal Lunny’s ‘Timedance’  and Míceál Ó Súilleabháin’s stunning 1995 showpiece, ‘Lumen’, stand tall as dazzling commissions in any context.
Given history, then, ‘Let The Message Run Free’ was completely formless, far less lightweight kitsch than a casual stir-fry of lyrical and musical clichés flung like mud at a wall, some of it sticking first time around, most of it sadly not.
Over no really discernible melody or chorus [a recurring theme in Keating’s fledgling canon], Boyzone popped a stream of karaoke one-liners that stopped at all of the standard thematic bases – from child’s eyes to light and bright to a world that is, shockingly, confused. To all intents, it’s lyrical message may have been lifted from the back of a Trócaire Lenten appeal box.
All of this comes as no real surprise to those of us who have long since refused even to acknowledge this charade, although there’s something strangely ironic about the sheer scale of the actual embarrassment. What is most peculiar, however, is how Keating’s mentor and manager, Louis Walsh [himself steeped in a Eurovision and cabaret circuit coat] can still defiantly work this country’s gullible and gossip-hungry tabloid media so impressively on the strength of such a nothing.
Eight days onwards and no one has yet dared to call the real bluff – that ‘Let The Message Run Free’ was, given the context and the legacy, flaccid and second-rate – a flatulent, cabaret salute to Europe and Boyzone’s most blatant humiliation yet.
Although with the band’s status already in decline, and with much of it’s original hardcore support now at school-going age, Louis Walsh’s Eurovision high-jack at least helps him to maintain the image into the foreseeable. And so it’s as you were, and all of that.
I’ve always treated Manchester’s Stone Roses too with a huge suspicion that derives largely, one imagines, from the band’s inability to prove any sort of greatness in the face of adversity. Granted, the band’s lavishly over-rated first album still has it’s moments [‘I Am The Resurrection’, ‘Made Of Stone’, ‘She Bangs The Drums’ and ‘I Wanna Be Adored’, for four] but five great songs in twelve years begs obvious questions.
In hindsight, The Stone Roses’ ‘Second Coming’ was nothing more than a try-on – a blast of incomplete guitar lines and half-hearted psycho-babble hiding a desperate lack of discernible tunes and mirroring, over forty minutes, the band’s slip-slide into pointless parody.
It’s in that frame of mind, then, that I genuinely worried about The Seahorses, Squire’s brand new yellow-pack all-stars who last week seriously dented the singles chart on the back of their debut, ‘Love Is The Law’. Even allowing an appropriate time for the record to settle, and granting Squire’s new charges the grace to get to grips with the reality of where they are, so quickly, ‘Love Is The Law’ is a rabid pup of a record, an aimless and over-blustered guitar work-out that sounds for all the world like Ocean Colour Scene on Valium.
Lyrically it’s a mess of over-arty one-liners, scooped casually together and knitted as some sort of wilful stream of consciousness.
Had the record been the work of, say, either Gene or Morrissey, it would have been tarred at the stocks long-since. It hasn’t. Instead the largely British music press have claimed it’s arrival as some sort of miraculous third coming, generously welcoming Squire’s return as an active musician and side-stepping his inconsistent and dubious writing past.
But then both Melody Maker and New Musical Express – the guiltiest parties of all in the plot [and not for the first time, either] – desperately need John Squire’s allure and mystique right now like they needed the remarkably sellable Oasis five years ago or The Smiths’ pop optimism back in 1982 – anything, in other words, that can kick-start a new music and re-define a new set of mind values to a bored readership.
Because like it or not, bands like Three Colours Red and Symposium won’t, ultimately, sell newspapers, regardless of whose truth you believe. And right now John Squire, just like Ronan Keating, exists far more in memory and in name than he does in consequential reality. He has, like it or not, a seat of sorts in pop history and a lavish pedigree to most of those setting the pop press agendas, however rightly or wrongly. And right now, almost ten years after his last great song, his face, like Ronan Keating’s, sells, irrespective of how good or how bad his product is.
The only really telling thing being, of course, that you can’t put your arms around memories forever. And right now the clocks for both Squire and Boyzone, whatever you don’t read elsewhere, are ticking.