There were a few of them, back in the dark ages, that you’d think twice about looking crooked at. Declan Jones from Blue In Heaven, all seven foot odd of him in his leather keks and his Chelsea boots, was one. Half of Whipping Boy, a couple of The Gorehounds, Dave Lavelle from The Honey Thieves. And maybe the gruffest of all of them, Dave Couse of A House, who’d skewer you with a look or a one-liner if you tried to blackguard him. Or even if you didn’t.
The first time I met Couse in person was on the concourse at Kent Station in Cork as he’d stepped off of an incoming train from Dublin. ‘So’, he asks. ‘What have you done for A House today ?’. He was never one who hung around to get his eye in.
And in truth, I’d done little for A House that day and I’d done little most other days too for the band that Couse formed with Fergal Bunbury, Martin Healy and Dermot Wylie in West Dublin in the early 1980s. But then they never struck me as either needing support or actively seeking assistance: from a remove, they looked like one of the most self-sufficient, durable and intense bands in the country and, to that end, were probably best left alone. And anyway, there were others, mostly on my own door-step in Cork, who were far more deserving of my first aid or, as history might record it, the hemlock kiss.
Maybe, alighted from a train ride from Dublin to Cork, Couse was just hungry and cranky: as one of those who regularly experienced the inter-city dining options during the 1980s and 1990s, its easy to appreciate how that may have been the case. Eitherway, once I’d fed and watered him, and after we’d completed a spiky exchange for an RTÉ youth television strand called ‘Scratch Saturday’ he certainly softened up a bit and I saw a hint of light beyond the blanket.
Over several subsequent years, I had a decent sideline view of A House while I worked with Keith Cullen at Setanta Records and, for a time, was close enough to see the meat on the bone. I never knew them particularly well – nor they I – to go anywhere deeper than a clean cut on the finger but I was still privy enough to see just how driven and determined they were on so many levels. They rarely let up or let go and Couse was at the heart of it all, setting the tempo, consistency in a world slowly gazing at its shoes.
In his pomp he was a restless and forceful writer who saw merit in the malevolent vignette. Fronting a group whose considerable achievement was often taken for granted and who were never entirely a common currency, one aspect often fuelled the other. A House, like many others before them and after them, were at their best when Couse was at his most tart. They consistently demanded the final word and, with Couse on the mic, it was often a bitter one: when the good times came, they were forever fleeting.
A House issued five studio albums for three different labels, most of which are among the finest Irish releases of their generation and, all things considered, the band endured for far longer than many of its peers. But their recorded output apart, it was the line they walked – and often deliberately played with – between charm, arrogance, resilience and bloody-mindedness that tended to define them.
In as much as the parameters of their original, four-square guitar-fused line-up would allow, A House were as unique as any and better than most. And later, after they re-shuffled their pack in the aftermath of their second album – after which they were promptly dropped by their label – bolstering their line-up and adding finesse and steel in equal part, they refined their game and went for it again, baldly. But in both their iterations they were as difficult to pin down as their cover was difficult to penetrate: in an Irish context, the biggest issue many seemed to have with A House was that they weren’t Something Happens, with whom they were long associated and with whom they were consistently locked in a competitive, often truculent side-show.
Tony O’Donoghue, now RTÉ’s football correspondent, once pounded the footpaths around Cork city to the point of fracture. In the days before mobile phones, you could always locate him if you wandered Patrick Street long enough and, in his leather jacket and pointy suedes, he certainly looked the part of a hip, young gunslinger. In the best and worst traditions of the freelancing hack, he held down a slew of wide-ranging jobs, one of the most interesting of which was a short, weekly slot on Cork Local Radio, where he’d play snippets of a couple of new releases, draw our attention to upcoming concerts and live events around town and jolt the RTÉ sound recordists from their torpor, however briefly.
As a clueless fresher still navigating his way around most things, I’d often still be at home during lunchtimes and would regularly catch Tony’s finely-tuned political broadcasts on behalf of quality independent Irish music. During a period in which emerging, indigenous rock music was in rude good health, and when the standard of its recorded output was mirrored by the development of a regular, sustainable national live circuit, Tony was rarely short of decent material. Broadcasting in short form long before the term was hi-jacked by digital marketing consultants and social media influencers, and while the regions were often starved of relevant music media, his weekly sermons cherried the cake for many of us, putting a partisan frosting on the national proselytising of the likes of Dave Fanning’s Rock Show on Radio 2FM.
And it was during one of Tony’s local homilies in 1987 that I heard the first shimmer of ‘Snowball Down’, A House’s second single and, for me, one of the most pressing, urgent cuts in the history of Irish alternative music. Produced by Chris O’Brien and released on the band’s own, self-funded imprint, RIP Records, it clocked in at just over 150 seconds, with its shades of The Bunnymen, The Blue Aeroplanes and some of the more subtle aspects – prominent, nimble bass, prominent acoustic strum – of The Paisley Underground. As opening statements go, both ‘Snowball Down’ and the band’s debut issue that preceded it months earlier, ‘Kick Me Again, Jesus’, punched far beyond the national qualifying standard.
To a handful of local anoraks, hangers-on and indie spotters, though, this was just another rung on a curve steeping progressively upwards.
The Underground Bar on Dublin’s Dame Street was a much-loved dive and, for a number of years, a small and important cog in the local machine, very strictly off-Broadway. [The site on which it stood is now occupied by a racy shop called ‘Condom Power’, an irony not lost on former regulars who fondly remember the old bar’s sardonic drayman, Big Johnny]. Run by Jeff Brennan and his father, Noel, the downstairs parlour was where, to my mind, the first and last great domestic music movement really took root hosting, as it did, frenetic and often chaotic early shows by the likes of Rex And Dino, Something Happens, The Stars of Heaven, Power Of Dreams, The Slowest Clock, [Backwards] Into Paradise, Whipping Boy, The Dixons and A House themselves.
The careless spirit of that period and the claustrophobic aspect of the tiny venue is captured naked on a short, six-song album, ‘Live At The Underground’, that was recorded there over two nights in 1985 and issued by Jeff on his own, one-off label, ‘Fear And Loathing Records’. Four years earlier, Elvera Butler’s ‘Kaught At The Kampus’ also cuffed six live tracks onto tape during shows recorded at the famed, UCC-hosted shows at The Arcadia Ballroom in Cork and, even if neither album was ever intended to trouble the chart compilers, both records served real purpose nonetheless. Over thirty years later, what were clearly just calling cards for two highly-regarded live venues have become, absolutely by default, curios that capture some of the more unique sights, sounds and perhaps even smells of the time, for posterity.
And A House are there on ‘Live At The Underground’, callow but recognisable, alongside The Stars Of Heaven, Something Happens and Hughie Purcell – contributing the shambling ‘On Your Bike, Wench, And Let’s Have The Back Of You’ to the party, before quickly moving on.
Indeed the band’s re-birth on the Setanta label between 1990 and 1992, during which they recorded and released the bridging [and aptly-titled, in my view] ‘Doodle’ EP and then the magnificent ‘I Am The Greatest’, is worth a long read in its own right. For a band down on it’s luck and back on the labour, the title of that record reflects A House’s constant, inerrant belief in it’s own ability. But then all five of their album titles can be read as sarcastic, sly references to the way the band saw itself, and especially it’s evolving relationship – good, mixed and mostly bad – with the music industry. From the shadowy optimism of the debut on a major label, ‘On Our Big Fat Merry Go-Round’ to the damning reality of a slow degeneration on it’s stubborn follow-up, ‘I Want Too Much’ through the life-affirming ‘I Am The Greatest’, the return to a major ‘Wide Eyed And Ignorant’ and the closing, sardonic chapter, ‘No More Apologies’, these were clear, political punch-lines that mashed a snotty face on the bay window of the industry that begot them. ‘The music business ?’, A House might have mused, summoning another doleful street philosopher, Norm Peterson . ‘Can’t live with it. Pass the beer nuts’.
The band played it’s last ever show on February 28th, 1997, in Dublin’s Olympia Theatre, a stone’s throw from The Underground Bar, aloof and diffident to the end. But although A House boasted a noisy and loyal support base all around the country, I long suspected they were far more comfortable outside of Ireland where, arguably, they were more critically valued and where they consistently had one up on Something Happens. But they were also clued in enough to know when to call time and, when the curtain fell, it was on the band’s own terms :- they scripted their own funeral in detail and organised the buffet afterwards.
In 2002, five years after A House packed up their tent, ‘Here Come The Good Times’, by a distance the band’s most contagious pop song, was selected as Ireland’s official World Cup anthem as the country’s international football team headed off to compete in that summer’s competition in Japan and Korea. Its beefed-up glam rock production and shiny pop veneer notwithstanding, the song is actually about a lifetime of personal disappointment [where good times occur ‘for a change’] and, in hindsight, seemed like a perfectly prescient selection, given how Ireland’s World Cup campaign unfolded.
Remembered less for the team’s unfortunate and maybe unlucky exit from the tournament and far more for Roy Keane’s strop, after which he tore out of the team’s training camp on the island of Saipan and returned home, it was appropriate that the ghosts of A House were on hand to faithfully soundtrack the misfortunes of a nation.
Eight years and two World Cups previously, Parlophone Records, their second major label, had failed to crack ‘Here Come The Good Times’ into the mainstream. This achievement was at once so scarcely unbelievable and yet perfectly in keeping with the band’s long experiences in the middle ground: the writing was on the wall for that relationship and, one suspects, A House itself, thereafter.
A salvo from that stomping pop song had also featured briefly as part of a spectacular opening montage shot around Ireland for the opening of the 1995 Eurovision Song Contest, hosted by Mary Kennedy and broadcast live from The Point Depot in Dublin. And however fleetingly, it seemed as if A House had finally recovered some of the face they’d lost when Gay Byrne patronised them to within inches of their lives as he introduced them on The Late Late Show before they performed their excellent ‘I’ll Always Be Grateful’ single back on the floor of Studio One on October 14th, 1988.
The last time I saw Dave Couse was from a distance after a Frank And Walters show in Dublin city many years ago. I hear him, from time to time, on his infrequent radio show where, from his song selections alone, I suspect he still holds many of those same beliefs he did when, a quarter of a century ago, we first locked horns in Cork. His band remain one of the real enigmas – and genuine successes – of contemporary Irish rock music and while, in the twenty years since that last curtain call, you’d expect all parties to have moved on, you’d suspect that no one felt the band’s lack of a broader breakthrough more keenly than Couse himself.
And whenever I hear him on the radio now – and he’s still as captivating as he’s ever been – it just hardens my view that all disc jockeys, like television producers and music writers – are, at heart, just frustrated musicians who, because of events and an absence of good fortune, are doing the next best and closest things instead.
And then there’s the standing Couse enjoys in the recent history of Cork popular music. In the long traditions of keeping the best secrets on the inside, he produced the first Frank And Walters E.P. for the Setanta label and, in hindsight, should have gone on and finished the job by doing the band’s debut album as well. By the time he was back behind the bench with them, far too late, on their second – and still easily their best album, ‘Grand Parade’, the moment, you’d think, was lost, the spirit having flown. But Couse’s whip-smart production only highlights how under-cooked ‘Trains, Boats And Planes’, The Franks’ nervous-sounding debut, was: in no way does the sound of that record do justice to many of it’s terrific cuts. ‘Trains’ has aged poorly and, twenty-five years on, sounds emaciated and tinny: given the steroids Couse also infused into The Franks’ ‘Beauty Becomes More Than Life’ elpee in 2006, it’s difficult not to think now of what he could have done, years previously, with the debut. And where that might have taken both parties.
Years later, several worlds collided and I was among the team tasked with producing RTÉ’s Late Late Show, immediately after Gay Byrne had stepped down as host and Pat Kenny moved up onto the crease. I felt it was only right, for several reasons, to move away from the show’s long-standing signature tune, an instrumental passage taken from Chris Andrews’ 1965 hit, ‘To Whom It Concerns’ and so I invited Dave, and a handful of others, to pitch any alternative suggestions they may have had. In my own mind, rightly or wrongly, I felt it was an opportunity to commission a contemporary Irish writer and to maybe sub-contract the work out to someone who may have had a fresh perspective on such matters. Which is what we did, and it was Ray Harman of Something Happens who eventually composed a new theme for the programme. In the years since he’s carved out a terrific career for himself providing similar services to the feature film and documentary markets.
Dave Couse has stayed nicely busy too and, his radio work apart, has released a handful of records on several labels and under a variety of different band-names, in the years since. Among which the ‘Batman And Robin’ single, released in September, 2005 under the band name Couse And The Impossible, is still easily the best of his solo material, some of which, his debut solo album ‘Genes’, in particular, is far more introspective and difficult than one might have expected.
For the last ten years or so I’ve spent far too much time in the shopping centre in Nutgrove, close to where I now life on the southside of Dublin. Where once I used it to do a regular family grocery shop and maybe pick up an over-priced, over-caloried coffee on the hoof, its now one of my primary social outlets, somewhere to kill an hour during the insanity or whenever I want to lose my children. There’s a Credit Union office on the complex, an excellent off-licence and a couple of decent take-aways: a trip to Nutgrove is everything that a casual wander into the heart of Soho used to be.
The music piped into the centre and out over the tannoys must be among the most interesting and diverse anywhere in the country. Buried in among the sterile old standards you’ll hear, on a routine basis, selections from The Icicle Works, early New Order, The Lotus Eaters and The Fountains Of Wayne. And on a couple of occasions recently, I’ve heard ‘I’ll Always Be Grateful’, still one of A House’s most distinctive cuts, as I’ve dallied in the aisles among the detergents and the toilet rolls.
But while I know that Dave Couse lives on that side of the city, I don’t remember him being invited down to cut the ribbon when they opened the re-furbished Argos branch there a few years back.