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 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. 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 with 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 then 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’  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