Swim were cut apart from their peers on the Dublin circuit during the late eighties and early nineties on many levels and it was easy to see, and even easier to hear, exactly why. For one, they weren’t a routine guitar band dipped in the spirit of either The Smiths and/or R.E.M. and, maybe more importantly, they made no secret of their ambitions. ‘What we’d probably like to do’, the band’s formidable singer, Joe Reilly, told an RTÉ music series called ‘Check It Out’ back in 1989, ‘is get signed and make lots of money’.
Reilly was Swim’s pivot and, around him, a band of excellent musicians added heft to his imposing tenor on songs written, initially, with Donegal-born keyboard player, John McCrea. And later, in a second, short-lived iteration, guitarist Pat Donne. The fact that they were all strong, proficient players made Swim a real curiousity: the pulling, dragging and primal squall of indie guitars just didn’t interest them. Instinctively drawn more to the chrome and leather of The Bailey than the spit and sawdust of The White Horse, their pitch aspired to the broad and grand: Steely Dan’s ‘Aja’, Roxy Music’s ‘Avalon’ and Love And Money’s second album, ‘Strange Kind Of Love’. Even if the end result often sounded closer to the full-bodied, if often lumpy, pop sound of Deacon Blue than it did to the knotted, jazz-wash of ‘Deacon Blues’, I still marked them up for ambition.
Swim’s bloodline went back to Geoffrey’s First Affair, a curious Dublin outfit with sassy intentions who flirted briefly with infamy when Larry Mullen produced their debut single, ‘And The Days Go By’ for Solid Records in 1986. Comprised initially of singer Ed Darragh, John McCrea and guitarist Hughie Purcell – and later, also featuring drummer Dave Dawson – their friendly pop/soul sound quickly disappeared up a cul-de-sac. But when McCrea and Joe Reilly formed Swim shortly thereafter, they brought with them similar aspirations. With a line-up completed by bassist Paul Holmes, guitarist Niall Conheady and Paul Daly on saxophone, Swim were also unusual in that, for an emerging, well-connected Dublin group cutting a shape around town during the late 1980s, they had an ambivalent relationship with Hot Press, then as now the country’s dominant music magazine.
One review in particular, from the late Bill Graham, was especially savage: ‘Their only value’, he concluded, ‘is that they epitomise every possible Irish mistake of 1988, a mismatch of thoughtless style and null content’. Now, the late Bill Graham is rightly lauded as one of Ireland’s finest critics and music writers and, to many of a certain age, enjoys a mythical status: he often brought a wide span of reference to his work, much of which borrowed from academic constructs and tropes. But the line of critical thinking he applied to Swim was also relevant to many of the other Irish groups hawking their wares during that period and by whom Hot Press, for whatever reasons, seemed to be consistently seduced.
Even Swim’s cheerleaders tended to water down their enthusiasm for them in public: the band just didn’t display the kind of unbridled rock and roll chops for which Hot Press was keeping Ireland safe. A point not lost either on those who saw Swim in Sir Henry’s in Cork at the end of the 1980s, most of whom were left positively underwhelmed. I’ve written previously about how that venue could often be unforgiving and cold, a bleak spot whenever the mood took her, that swallowed many an unsuspecting band whole. A core of the venue’s regulars were, for years, blindly loyal to the brass-neck cartoonery of The Golden Horde – for whom Bill Graham had a real soft spot – and the splayed shapes of Blue In Heaven, both of whom attracted unstinting devotion in Cork simply because, to my mind, they just did unfiltered, full-frontal coercion. In front of that sort of a crowd, Swim were onto an absolute battering.
This only stoked up the contrarian in me. While Swim sounded far too rigid and linear to ever be wholly essential, I still thought there was room somewhere for their hand-washed brand of adult-orientated pop music and that, in their fresh denims and roll-necks, they just had a different kind of cutting to them. And Gary Katz, Steely Dan’s long-time producer, maybe thought so too: after Swim signed a major label deal with MCA, he agreed to produce the band’s first album.
Over the years, Ireland has made several noble stabs at the more developed, smarter end of the pop market: later-period Microdisney, The Fat Lady Sings, Hinterland, The Four Of Us, The Thrills and, more recently, Little Green Cars, all loosely occupy this space, each of them sculpting their bodies with the help of interesting supplements and nutrients, often layered keys and loops. It was to The Fat Lady Sings’ credit, for instance, that they took on conventional taste laws and added, on occasion, a piano accordion to their normal floor-routine. While The Thrills bravely raised the stakes when they unfurled a banjo into their frontline around the time of their third album, ‘Teenager’, admittedly as their career was drifting in the roaring forties .
Swim are very much a part of this number even if, like Hinterland – another local act far more at home within the controlled air of the studio than on the live stage – they barely register in the histories of recent Irish popular music. Substantial information about them is difficult to find and, with the band’s only album long deleted and almost impossible to locate, it’s as if someone has deliberately purged them. But for a couple of years, as they played the arenas with Cher and Fleetwood Mac, and enjoyed major label patronage, they had much going on.
‘Sundrive Road’, the group’s first and only album, was released in the summer of 1990, recorded at Ridge Farm in Surrey and over-dubbed and mixed at length at various locations in Ireland, England and New York. Named after the road in Crumlin where Reilly grew up, it was a stylish and well-appointed affair that, in a local context, sat utterly out of time with it’s surroundings. While Swim aspired to the urbane, around them the domestic market had become increasingly pock-marked by what the late George Byrne termed ‘designer bogmen’, many of them based in or deriving from the west of Ireland.
From Tuam in County Galway, The Sawdoctors made smart, eloquent noises about rural dislocation, small- town disaffection and the spirit of the unlikely under-dog that were undone, ultimately, by the absolute paucity of the band’s material. Which, despite the lofty claims of it’s authors, was more brucellosis than Bruce. Down the road, meanwhile, The Waterboys had become the latest victims of the Galway city flytrap: having taken an eternity to complete the permeable ‘Fisherman’s Blues’, and now about to release it’s lesser follow-up, ‘Room To Roam’, their sound had become infected by the rash of unruly raggle-taggle that had long popped the air around Shop Street and Mainguard. While The Stunning, on the lumpier end of the distinctly average, were on a scarcely believable upward curve that saw them head-line the outdoor Féile festival in Semple Stadium, Thurles in 1993. With it’s lacquered finish and subtle production tricks, ‘Sundrive Road’ was belligerently out of line and, in it’s own way, an affront.
Gary Katz had produced all of Steely Dan’s records and, by the middle of 1990, had also just completed the first sessions for what would later become Paul Brady’s ‘Trick Or Treat’ album. But in keeping with much of the Swim story, ‘Sundrive Road’ isn’t acknowledged on the producer’s discography on his own website. And yet Katz’s fingerprints are all over the record: indeed one of the most truly arresting aspects of the record is the sheer calibre of the numerous session players engaged by him to augment the core sound. The credits list on ‘Sundrive Road’ makes for remarkable reading, noting contributions by many incredible players and performers, all of them pulled readily, you’d suspect, from the producer’s rolodex.
Among those who feature on the record are Fonzi Thornton, one of the most decorated and in-demand backing vocalists of the last forty years and who features on records by Aretha Franklin, David Bowie, Ray Charles and a litany of others. The late Paul Griffin added Hammond organ on a couple of tracks, as he did previously on the likes of ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, ‘Blonde On Blonde’ and ‘Aja’ itself. Hugh McCracken – another stellar session player whose name features on those interminable Steely Dan credits – contributes harmonica, having previously done do with everyone from Billy Joel to Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel to Dionne Warwick. While saxophonist Lou Marini had previously appeared in both Blues Brothers films, was at one point a member of Blood, Sweat and Tears and boasts a string of other session credits to his name. Whether Swim were aware at the time exactly who they were dealing with isn’t clear.
And yet for all that, I still think that Swim could have done more to help their own cause. Long-time watchers – and there were at least ten of us – were mildly surprised to see that one of their most impactful early songs, ‘There Like An Angel’, a staple of their live sets that tailed off in a burst of twinned saxophone lines, hadn’t made the final cut, held in reserve, instead, as a future B-side. Indeed there was relatively little sax on the record at all: one of the group’s long-standing calling cards had been stripped right back, the gaps filled instead with lines and lines of subtle guitars and added vocal parts.
Elsewhere, ‘So Long Manhattan’, another of Swim’s centre-pieces, was slowed and stripped, a one-time show-stealer denuded, it’s strength lost to the barber’s blade. It was the titles, though, that really told the tale of the tape. ‘Buffaloes’, ‘Road’, ‘Harbour’ and and ‘Christmas In Colorado’ – as well, of course, as ‘So Long Manhattan’ – were all migration songs of a sort, yearning variously for wide plains, warm boozers and home comforts and, in his gut, Reilly was torn between the cosiness of the familiar and the uncertain promise of the faraway field.
The opener, ‘I Believe’, with it’s full-bodied piano thump, wouldn’t have been out of place on any of the first three Deacon Blue records: indeed Ger Kiely’s guitar parts borrowed freely from the late Graeme Kelling who, with no little style, deftly joined the dots on ‘Raintown’ and ‘When The World Knows Your Name’, especially. And with shades too of Love And Money and Danny Wilson’s excellent debut album ‘Meet Danny Wilson’, ‘Sundrive Road’ generally resounded to the ache of the readily recognizable. But it was when the group went off script and opened up the arc a bit that it was at it’s most impactful: ‘Wonderful Thunder’, the record’s closer and the only one of the dozen written by bass-player Paul Holmes with Reilly, may well have been a random studio doodle and yet, with it’s soft keyboard push, wouldn’t have been out of place on Prefab Sprout’s ‘Jordan : The Comeback’. In trailing off, ‘Sundrive Road’ hints at what might have been.
But of course the whole enterprise was doomed to fail anyway. After all, Swim were simply following a three-act story-line familiar to many Irish bands that went before them and many more again who came after. Signed to a major label in a hail of activity, sustained cheaply on a wage for twelve months with the odd bone thrown from the top table, then dumped without a whisper after a single, contractually obligatory album. Once the singles, ‘I Believe’ and ‘Rachel’, failed to detonate, they were over and out, Swim’s genetic profile making the parting as practical as it was inevitable.
But they did, in a roundabout way, make at least one significant and long-standing contribution to the course of popular Irish music during the 1990s. With Swim’s corpse still warm, the band’s drummer, Dave Dawson, replaced Dermot Wylie behind the traps with A House, just as the Walkinstown band was about to enter the most articulate and successful phase of it’s career, immediately prior to the recording of ‘I Am The Greatest’. Dawson was an absolute machine who worked his way effortlessly around the kit and, alongside Martin Healy on bass, built A House a formidable, energy-efficient foundation on their last three albums. To me, he’s easily up there alongside the likes of Fran Breen and Noel Bridgeman as one of the country’s finest ever drummers. Now married and living in America, he packed the biscuit tins away years ago and no longer plays.
And what of his one-time band-mates in Swim ? Well, Joe Reilly and Paul Holmes were still dabbling with the dark arts up to relatively recently even if, beyond the odd on-line post, not a whole lot else has been made known. Ger Kiely is still a familiar presence as a session player and, formidable across a wide range of styles, is likely to turn up anywhere and with anyone: among many other things, he also composes these days for radio comedy output. John McCrea, another terrific player with a mighty range and a broad field of vision, has composed and scored more classical-rooted material for bespoke film and art projects and runs a music school in south county Dublin.
CODA: Given the lack of basic research material on Swim as outlined above, I owe another debt to my friend, Chris O’Brien, the producer and engineer who, once again, went back into his diaries and who pulled all of the factual threads here into order for us. That man, and his diaries, should be protected by some sort of national heritage order.
CODA 2: Swim’s bass player, Paul Holmes, is now working as a Community Development worker in Bluebell, Dublin. Last year he was back on the boards as part of that initiative to play his first show in fifteen years.
That show in the National Concert Hall – and featuring the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra – is captured here.