Whenever I hear Dave Fanning on the radio these days, he’s either live on the weightier end of the RTÉ Radio One schedule paying respects on the nation’s behalf to the latest dead rock and roll superstar or else he’s presenting his own programme on 2FM and making like he’s always done: a fish out of water, a man out of breath. I strongly suspect he derives a menacing satisfaction from still battling the conditions, the prevailing public mood, general trendiness and cool, clinging to what he knows best and shaping like he’s always done. In a world gone bite-sized, he’s a comforting presence to those of us who, back when we were all less anxious, saw him as the king of kings.
But like many of those to whom he’s consistently devoted the air-waves, he’s of a dying breed himself now too: the weekend mornings must seem like a house of appalling horrors to someone who’s long been defined by the freedom and space of late nights and yet who’s also yearned for the centre of the mainstream weekday schedule too. The Dave Fanning Show now goes out on RTÉ Radio 2FM early every Saturday and Sunday morning, at 9AM, and yet, in spite of the slot and what surrounds him in it – a noisy playground, basically – the host still sounds as breezy, sussed and curious as he’s always done, only with the music pared back to a minimum. It’s the sort of light, untaxing and casual fare he can do – and quite probably does do – in his sleep.
Like many of you, there was a time when I was there with him on the frontline every single week-night, back when the names of Fanning and Ian Wilson, his long-time producer, were as important in their own way as those of Morrissey and Marr. I sucked in his every word, which was difficult enough given there were so many of them in his average sentence, and always had a fresh cassette standing by, ready to record a new session or a forthcoming ‘pre-release’. ‘One of four from them on tonight’s programme’, he’d often announce at the top of the show, referring to a new R.E.M. album or a Smiths track he’d been sent as a white-label exclusive, maybe even by the band itself ? And you’d often suffer through a Red Lorry Yellow Lorry single, an obtuse Ivor Cutler cut or a demo from Yes, Lets or Cuba Dares – [‘from Dublin but based in London’, as if that were an excuse ?] – knowing that, around the corner, were far more handsome pleasures.
Like ‘Sunday Lunch At The Geldofs’ by I, Ludicrous. Or ‘Kissing With Confidence’ by Will Powers or ‘Waiting For A Train’ by Flash And The Pan. And later, after Richard Crowley or Bob Powell interrupted the show at the halfway mark with a news bulletin, Dave might directly cue a new Prefab Sprout track taken from a forthcoming album weeks ahead of it’s scheduled release. Or something freshly minted from The Stars Of Heaven. Or Microdisney. Or a myriad of other left-field acts, each of them as pressing and urgent as the next.
Some of whom would then fetch up at the end of every year on what was variously called ‘Fanning’s Festive Fifty’ and ‘Fanning’s Fab Fifty’, a seasonal chart show compiled from the votes cast by the programme’s listeners who’d nominate their favourite songs played on The Rock Show during the previous twelve months. And which tended to consist of the same core of thirty songs every year, most of them by U2, R.E.M. and The Smiths, but augmented by the odd waif and stray from the margins out beyond the indie fringe. Like ‘Bike’, by Pink Floyd, from their acid-soaked ‘Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’ elpee.
Like much of Fanning’s schtick, the idea of a seasonal list show was lifted wholesale from John Peel’s long-running, stuck-in-the-periphery radio programme on BBC Radio One, where an end-of-year ‘Fab 50’ had endured since the mid 1970s. But this mattered little, at least not to those of us stranded along the Southern coast where it was often as difficult to get a decent international radio signal as it was to get onto the waiting list for a domestic telephone.
Admitting a fondness for Fanning would often mark you out as a strange one and I hear the same criticisms of him now, from colleagues and peers, as I did thirty years ago from my school friends. But as a radio broadcaster, I’d put Fanning at his peak up there among the most significant we’ve ever produced, with a breadth of reference and an easy curiosity that’s as wide and important in its own way as those of Pat Kenny, Olivia O’Leary and Andy O’Mahony. As with Kenny, I suspect that history will regard him far more favourably than many of those who have long taken him for granted and more recently, just written him off as a beaten docket. If all he’s ever done is to so passionately regard emerging, new and alternative music with courtesy and, even more critically, to afford that music – and those who made it – the oxygen of the national airwaves, then he’s done the country a real service.
And I say this as someone who, although I’ve long shared the wide RTÉ campus with him, don’t really know him at all. Beyond the odd, random salute or conversation around the shop and, one time, a couple of lovely pints with him down in The Leeson Lounge after work, for no other reason than it just seemed like the right thing to do at the time. But in the event of a mass, RTÉ-wide fire drill, you’d certainly know what side of the car-park to line up on, and alongside whom.
I first became one of his regular listeners during the early 1980s after the show moved from its original slot at midnight to a more accessible one between 8 and 10, and when he’d come on air every night to the strains of a theme song, the opening bars of Fleetwood Mac’s 1969 single, ‘Oh Well’, written by Peter Green. That choice of signature is interesting in itself too: despite Fanning’s long association with the left-of-field and the marginal, he’s as comfortable and as knowledgeable on the classics as he is on the new and emerging, especially strong on the likes of Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. Which was obvious yet again during the last twelve months when he provided some of the most dexterous, off-the-cuff critical analysis of the likes of Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen that was heard on any outlet.
The RTÉ Guide would list the show very simply, as ‘Dave Fanning’ – as it still does today – with a small credit beneath it for ‘Producer : Ian Wilson’. And I’d take myself into the good room each evening with my school books and the best of intentions and lose myself there for a couple of hours, distracted away from the likes of Seán Ó Ríordáin, Máirtín Ó Direáin, Yeats and Kavanagh by the more attractive couplets, meters and rhymes of Michael Stipe, Mike Scott and Bowie. It was compulsive, addictive stuff: I received a fine education up in the old school but I completed another entire curriculum outside of it at the same time, based on riveting work by the likes of Joe Strummer, Paul Weller, Pete Shelley and Ian McCulloch on a long, honours-level course delivered by Fanning and devised by Wilson, the impact of which still endures to this day.
On February 6th, 1984, RTÉ’s early-evening youth programme, Youngline, featured a short profile of Fanning, shot on film, in which he leaves a house somewhere on the southside of Dublin, ferrying a heap of albums under his arm, and sets out for work down the road in Montrose. He gets into a startlingly unspectacular car, slides a cassette into the stereo and R.E.M.’s ‘Radio Free Europe’ comes on. From my armchair at home in Blackpool, that’s how I genuinely believed Fanning spent his days: surrounded by vinyl, cassettes, demos and then, later, the vast vaults in the RTÉ basement, carefully hand-picking the songs that would, in the evening, help to make Ireland a safer place.
I saw this up-close one night, maybe twelve or thirteen years later, when I dropped over to the radio building to watch Fanning in action in advance of a piece I was hoping to do for a music television series I’d devised for young teenagers. Sure enough, there he was, up to his neck in compact discs, live to the nation from one studio while, immediately next door, he was recording another show at the same time, with help on the cross-faders from his then producer, Jim Lockhart. And if, on either of the shows, it sounded like he’d lost his train of thought or forgotten what the last track he played was, then it’s very likely he had.
Lockhart would remind him of who was who and what went where and, if Dave didn’t make it from one studio to the other in time to pick up a link, Jim would just run in another disc or stop recording and do a quick edit on the fly. I thought it was one of the most chaotic, reckless and brazen – and ultimately brilliant – things I’d seen and it confirmed much of what I’d long suspected about the show.
But if Fanning was always occupied at the front-of-house, it was Ian Wilson, the faceless one back in the boiler-room, who made the whole operation click and who, I suspect, took most of the bullets for the pair of them for the guts of two decades. From the opening of Radio 2 onwards, the work they did was regarded by many, inside and outside of RTÉ, as just plain weird. And I’m sure there’ve been numerous folk within the walls of Montrose who’ve attempted to see this kind of enterprise off for good over the years: those who’ve long stressed the importance of bottom lines but for whom ‘Blue Lines’ and ‘Parallel Lines’ just don’t exist.
And, who knows, maybe one day those wishes will be granted ? But when the curtain finally does come down, Fanning and Wilson – like John Peel and his own long-standing side-kick and producer, John Walters – will stand to epitomise the very essence of a public purpose. It’s easy to spin and bend the great Reithian tenets of education, information and entertainment for all sorts of theoretical purposes but The Rock Show, wilfully alternative as it was in every respect, was where all that became manifest in reality on a nightly basis.
I heard it said glibly of Wilson once that, when it came to young bands recording for The Rock Show, the more out of tune you were, the more he liked you. But it’s certainly true that his outlook has always been rooted in the fundamental dogma of punk rock and, because of that, it’s unlikely I’d be doing the job I do now. In fact No Disco would never have even got off the page were it not for the trail he’d created and, when the series was taken off the air years later, it was no surprise to see himself and Fanning bat so publicly for it’s retention.
Given the changing shape of media, and the often deliberate blurring of the last remaining distinctions between commercial and public imperatives, Wilson’s logic, to my mind at least, determines the enduring value of citizen-funded output: just give everyone a voice, irrespective of how tuneless that voice may be. And although it’s unlikely they’ll ever commemorate him with a bronze bust around the grounds at RTÉ, he’ll certainly be remembered where it matters: within the music collections of a number of at least two generations who had their heads turned and their minds bent by the wonder of alternative sounds and the possibilities suggested by those sounds.
The history of what was first Radio 2 and is now RTÉ Radio 2FM, will be defined largely by the legacies of Gerry Ryan, Larry Gogan and The Rock Show which, although scheduled consistently on the fringes of the schedule, has arguably left the most enduring mark of all, given both it’s longevity and it’s parallel association with U2. Indeed as U2 were approaching their critical pomp during the early and mid 1990s, so too was Fanning who, unlike some of his more shameless peers, succeeded in landing a handful of tidy front-of-camera jobs on terrestrial television in Britain. He did so because, at his best, he was a sharp presenter and deft interviewer, a fact not lost on those at Channel 4, for whom his lateral approach was perfectly in line with the channel’s founding principles.
It was U2 who, in 1980, recorded the first ever Fanning session, a regular feature of The Rock Show during it’s long history whereby young and emerging bands from all over Ireland were recorded in the studios in Montrose, usually over a two-day period, specifically for broadcast on the programme. Many of those recordings are wonderfully curated at http://fanningsessions.wordpress.com , an invaluable resource that’s forever worth dipping into.
‘The sessions are now part of the scenery of the Irish music industry’, Ian Wilson told Alan Corr in an RTÉ Guide feature piece in April, 1991. ‘We’ve grown up with the industry, the sessions are now part of the development of any Irish band’. And he was right: practically every young Irish band worth it’s salt recorded at least one session in the studios in the RTÉ Radio building, faithfully engineered over the years by the likes of Aodán Ó Dubhghaill, Paddy McBreen and Pete Hollidai. With Wilson stalking the control room throughout, making sure the recordings all ran to schedule, that the bands had all been given lunch vouchers for the RTÉ canteen and that, before leaving the premises, they’d all signed the release forms that would allow him to broadcast the material. And get the bands paid.
This was the way it was for numerous young bands from all over Ireland for the guts of twenty years. Wilson would get routinely excited by something he’d heard on a rough, unsolicited demo tape or at a random live show and, in an inimitable manner, would then summon what were often unsuspecting, un-prepared and under-cooked bands to the Donnybrook sprawl for a couple of days, where they’d record and mix three or four original songs for The Rock Show, subsidised by the licence-fee.
The Frank And Walters were one of those bands. They’ve enjoyed a long association with Fanning and Wilson and recorded an absolute belter of a session in Studio 8 during the early part of 1991, as they were gathering pace at a serious clip from their base in Sullivan’s Quay school in Cork. The band was back in Montrose in June, 1997, having enjoyed a scarcely believable six years and now, dropped by a major label, were in Dublin at the invitation of The Rock Show to commit another session to tape. After Wilson heard that some of the party planned to doss down in a car on the RTÉ campus over-night, he rang his wife and insisted that half of them stay with his own family instead. I took two others with me down the road to Sandymount, where I was sharing a small house at the time with an actor friend who awoke the following morning to find half of one of his favourite bands sprawled all over his well-kept front-room in their scunters.
Those Frank And Walters sessions are among a host of important, home-spun recordings commissioned by Wilson for the Fanning programmes over the course of almost twenty years. By their nature, given the vagaries of the music industry at non-league level and the traditional baggage carried by aspiring young musicians with notions, the quality and extent of that vast library is varied and wide, as you’d expect it to be. I had my own head turned over the years by sessions from the likes of The Dixons, Above The Thunderclouds and The Honey Thieves, but there are hundreds more: where those recordings now reside, and whether or not some of them even still exist, I couldn’t tell you. But I do know that, buried in attics and drawers in housing estates all over Ireland, there are old-style BASF cassettes, quarter inch reel-to-reels and dusty DAT tapes that contain, for better or for worse, the work of what were once young, nervy hands and big dreamers. I imagine that there are grown men and women in their mid-fifties now who, from time to time, catch up as life-long friends and, whenever the conversation runs dry, maybe remember a time when, fleetingly, that phone-call from Ian Wilson opened up a world of opportunity and possibility in front of their eyes. And who, in the same breath, wonder what might have been had the RTÉ sound engineer who mixed their session not over-loaded their four best original songs with too much bass-end.
The odd time, a couple of those session tracks even made it onto The Fab Fifty, usually on the back of shameless gerrymandering and clever postcard campaigns co-ordinated often by a friend of the band who, in the absence of either good looks or even the most basic competence on an instrument, aspired instead to band management, and a namecheck as such in the Hot Press Yearbook. And for what, ultimately ? Because while Fanning would string out The Fab Fifty over the course of several nights in the run-up to Christmas, building up a moderate degree of suspense as he went, it would become apparent the further you drove on that the mighty live version of ‘Bad’, from U2’s ‘Wide Awake In America’ album had, once again, crossed the line as the nation’s Favourite ‘Rock Show’ track of the year.
For years, Ian Wilson had his considerable sights trained elsewhere too. Every June he’d assemble fifteen of the country’s brightest, best and most brazen new bands, often on the strength of radio sessions he’d recorded with them, and get them away on an annual showcase in Sir Henry’s in Cork over three consecutive nights. Cork Rock was where, once again, he took on the work of a murder of record company talent spotters and put the cream of the unsigned local crop on a plate for them in one of the best live music venues in the country over the course Bank Holiday weekend. And, it goes without saying, recorded all of the output for broadcast later on The Rock Show too. I’ve written at length about Cork Rock previously and these pieces are available to read here and here. But those live shows were essentially extensions of the work that Wilson and Fanning got through week in, week out back on 2FM and, by taking the show on the road, forged an even further connection with a loyal core of The Rock Show’s audience. For whom such things really, really mattered.
I usually hear The Dave Fanning Show now while I’m ferrying my daughters all over Dublin for matches, training and the like. Indeed, the only real positive about an early start in Saint Maurs of a Saturday or a Sunday morning is that, as currently constituted, Dave is there on the dial to break up the journey and put parents, mentors and under-age hurlers and footballers into ‘the zone’. Inevitably, during another of Dave’s long, meandering questions to a guest, one of the kids will ask me if we can switch to something – anything – else. And I can’t and I won’t because I’ve travelled so far with Fanning now that I don’t actually think that I can.
At which point the back-seat crew promptly leaves ‘the zone’ again.
NOTE :- A special radio documentary, ‘The Studio 8 Sessions’, goes out on RTÉ Radio 2FM on Thursday, December 29th next, at 6PM. And in it, the likes of Gavin Friday, Christy Dignam, Liam Ó Maonlaoí and others recall their own experiences when, as young musicians, they recorded radio sessions for ‘The Rock Show’.