One of the most complete and impressive live guitar performances I’ve seen during my decades spent going slowly deaf in large rooms was on the wide stage at The City Hall in Cork on November 2nd, 1987. Neil Clark lined-up to Lloyd Cole’s right that night, stage left as I looked on from half-way down the long hall on Anglesea Street and, using a full range of styles, buttressed The Commotions sound like he did for the seven years the band endured. During which he routinely played with his fists bound in velvet.
Lloyd Cole and The Commotions were touring ‘Mainstream’, their third album and, during that short stop-over in Ireland, where they were always well received, also played a clutch of dates in Limerick, Dublin and Belfast. There was a time when this sort of carry-on was more rule than exception, even for the bigger bands on the circuit. And in November, 1987, The Commotions were a serious draw.
Some of the more potent live shows played here over the last forty years have gone off, if not completely under the radar, then certainly far from the traditional seat of cool and in less obvious, smaller venues outside of Dublin. Nirvana with Sonic Youth in Cork, famously. The Smiths in Letterkenny and Dundalk, Radiohead in Galway and Prefab Sprout with Paul Brady in Belfast foremost among them too. And to which I would certainly add any one of a number of Commotions shows.
That ‘Mainstream’ tour was back-dropped by the sort of mixed signals that often define a band or artist up a critical and creative junction. The album’s excellent lead single, ‘My Bag’ – ‘excuse me one moment while I powder my nose’ – had been a more difficult sell than it should have been and struggled to recapture commercial formlines. Discommoding some of the day-trippers who’d latterly come on board with the group, ‘Mainstream’ would be the last of the band’s three studio albums.
In the two years since those radio and chart hits – ‘Brand New Friend’ and ‘Lost Weekend’ – and the patchy second album on which they featured, ‘Easy Pieces’, the band’s ambitions had been pulled between the soft edges of ‘Smash Hits’, the market’s influential pop weekly on which Lloyd had featured as brooding pop totty and the noisier, more unforgiving pages of what was then regarded as the more serious music press, New Music Express and Melody Maker especially. And where Lloyd and the band had enjoyed a strong critical footing since the release of ‘Forest Fire’ in 1984.
‘My Bag’ – a terrific, full-bodied, guitar led pop song narrated by a cocaine addict who was walking his bag ‘through a twenty-storey non-stop snow-storm’ – captured that tension in four minutes flat.
One of the Commotions, keyboard player Blair Cowan, had already left the fray, with his accordion under his arm, presumably. But while the ‘Mainstream’ sessions had been laboured, as was much of the tour, it’s not that you’d have guessed that from either the record or the live dates that accompanied it. ‘My Bag’ is indicative of an album that’s meatier and more ambitious than what went previously ;- the songs are stronger and Lloyd has grown into his voice, developing apace as a lyricist as he did so.
But the cross-over, popular market successes delivered by ‘Easy Pieces’ had come at a price. I’m not convinced that The Commotions were ever designed to hold the sort of weight that goes with success in the middle-ground – they wouldn’t be the first, either – and I’ve long felt that much of their subtlety and lyrical magic was just lost in the unpredictable wind of the mainstream. And if the band itself was uncertain about the record, then what about us ?
Lloyd himself re-visited ‘Lost Weekend’ and ‘Brand New Friend’ several years later on a song called ‘Past Imperfect’, the opening cut on an excellent, eponymously-titled album he made in 2000 as part of a New York-based group, featuring Jill Sobule, called The Negatives. ‘I can’t unwrite the tune or discount the cost’ he sings on an album that also features the mighty ‘That Boy’, co-written by Lloyd with Gary Clark of Danny Wilson and King L [and, latterly, the writer of the ‘Sing Street’ soundtrack]. Fifteen years later and he was still seeing the writing on the wall.
And yet all that notwithstanding, Neil Clark gave a real masterclass that night in Cork back in 1987. I just couldn’t believe how effortless his playing was or how central he was to every single one of The Commotions’ key plays. And I remember it in detail.
Thirteen years previously, the influential British film-maker, Tony Palmer, had captured another guitarist at work and play in the same venue. ‘Rory Gallagher : Irish Tour, 1974’ is still, at least on my count, the most rounded and insightful documentary portrait of the gifted but troubled Ballyshannon-born, Cork-shaped guitarist who died, aged 47, in 1995. Completed without voice-over or commentary, Palmer’s highly-charged but skilfully stitched tour film allows the music and the cinematography to link the narrative. And the director’s style clearly suited his subject, who was notoriously shy and who, once again on this film, is at his most animated when talking about strings, tunings and his guitar’s battered body.
But ‘Irish Tour, 1974’ is far more than just a live performance piece. In the scenes shot with Rory around Cork city and Cobh, and especially the material gathered around Belfast at the height of ‘the troubles’, the film becomes a formidable social history document as it goes. Whether that be in those shots of keyboard player Lou Martin uncapping a beer bottle using his belt buckle in a spartan, barely functional dressing room, the smog-filtered general views of Cork’s heavily-industrialised harbour, the Leeds United scarf held aloft proudly in the audience at the City Hall show or the exterior shots of some of Cork’s best known pubs during this time, The Sextant and The Swan And Cygnet among them.
Presumably a director’s in-joke, the only white powder seen in any of the backstage material is that from a branded Scholl can :- drummer Rod D’Ath is captured by Palmer on 16mm film applying foot talc in the dressing room before he laces up his rubber dollies and takes his opening position behind the traps ahead of one of the live concerts. ‘Not chasing anything, just jogging’, as Lloyd Cole would later sing on ‘My Bag’.
In terms of style, influence, tone and substance, Rory Gallagher and Neil Clark stood oceans apart. Gallagher’s primary influences were in the improvised skiffle riffs of Lonnie Donegan and the bluesy American rock sounds of Leadbelly, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry ;- he was a magnetic virtuoso guitarist, on electric and acoustic, who at one stage was invited to replace Mick Taylor in The Rolling Stones.
His impact stretches far and wide. He was regarded as much for how he played as for what he played and, as such, has been name-checked by the likes of Johnny Marr, The Edge, Tim Wheeler of Ash, Noel Gallagher and all points between. And in the great traditions of critical cliché, there were times routinely during his career when his guitar appeared as if it were simply an extension of his body.
Neil Clark might well have been aware of Gallagher’s standing – in Cork, especially – but was far more determined, one suspects, by the grittier can-do of Steve Jones of The Sex Pistols and the delicate flowers of Scotland that sprung into life on the Postcard label in the post-punk era. Like Rory, he too was a nimble and flexible player – if far less showy – and was comfortable in a myriad of styles, often within the same verse-chorus-verse structure. And I was lucky enough to see him at the peak of his powers that night in The City Hall as The Commotions exploded in front of me.
As someone who missed Gallagher’s legendary live performances in Cork by a decade, but who had heard the many tall tales and general mythology that surrounded those shows, this must have been how he sounded, ten years previously, to the duffle-coated, Innisfallen-bound generation that went before me.
I’d seen Johnny Marr at close quarters three years previously in The Savoy on Patrick Street when The Smiths played two shows there in 1984, but those performances were dominated from top to tail by Morrissey, the band’s singer from whom you diverted your attention at your peril, and by a series of fractious side-shows that were going on deep in the belly of the audience. So while I’d been captivated by magnetic lead singers at live shows previously – a young Cathal Coughlan set the bar far too high – this was the first time I’d felt the raw clout of a live guitar and the possibilities it brought with it.
Neil was Lloyd Cole’s guitar side-kick from the early 1980s onwards and it was his fluent and wide-ranging guitar sound that shaped much of the band’s material and reputation. His humble jangle alongside Cole’s arch lyrics and melody lines and Cowan’s soft keyboard fills made The Commotions one of the more interesting and powerful bands of the British indie-pop set during a magical period from 1984 until 1987.
I adored ‘Rattlesnakes’, the band’s imperial 1984 debut album. Apart entirely from the magic underpinning it’s smart pop chops, and Lloyd’s outrageous name-dropping – Simone de Beauvoir, Arthur Lee, Eve Marie Saint, Greta Garbo – he had also delivered one of the greatest lines I’d heard. On ‘Four Flights Up’, over a skittish, country-flavoured Long Ryders-style rattling riff, Lloyd posed the question – ‘Must you tell me all your secrets when its hard enough to love you knowing nothing ?’. And, by so doing, whipped the rug out from under anyone serious about pulling with confidence at U.C.C.’s English Literature Society outings to The Rockview Bar.
Lloyd and Neil share a couple of memorable co-writes on that record – to my mind the album’s best cuts, ‘Forest Fire’ and ‘Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken’ – but our hero contributes widely and wildly across the full deck of ten cuts, numerous acoustic signatures, thundering lead riffs, passive fills and gorgeous foundation lines. But he reserved his most sterling work for ‘Mainstream’.
Lloyd Cole will be forever best remembered, unfairly so and in the worst traditions of his trade, for ‘Rattlesnakes’ and for the snappy pop market singles from its follow up. But ‘Mainstream’ is by far the band’s best record.
Apart from the strength of the material – ‘From The Hip’, ‘Mister Malcontent’, ‘Sean Penn Blues’ and ‘Hey Rusty’ are ace by any standards – the record is underpinned at every turn by Neil’s magnificent contributions. The record drips with layers of guitar, much of which is un-obtrusive. And that night in The City Hall just sealed the deal for me, no moreso than on the grandiose ‘Hey Rusty’, which he coaxed lovingly over the middle-distance before making for home with the sort of champion kick seen earlier that year in Indianapolis when a remarkable local athlete, Marcus O’Sullivan, one Cork’s finest ever sportsmen or women, took the first of his three World Indoor 1500m championships.
Earlier that year, a friend of mine produced a copy of ‘The Joshua Tree’ out of a Golden Discs carrier bag up on the third floor of The Boole Library in U.C.C. and, on the back of an intensive morning he’d spent with it, was already proclaiming U2’s fifth studio album as the most essential and important record of our generation. By the end of that summer, The Smiths had broken up, R.E.M. released ‘Document’ and The Jesus And Mary Chain released ‘Darklands’. And that – and Marcus O’Sullivan – was pretty much how 1987 was for me.
The night after The Commotions played in Cork, I watched Lloyd do an interview with Shay Healy on a pre-watershed RTÉ magazine programme called ‘Evening Extra’. Unshaven, clearly well-read, studied and bored, Lloyd sported one of his signature black polo-necks during that encounter and, en homage, I wore a selection of similar sweaters for many years thereafter myself. Hoping, forlornly as it happened, that some of his allure might rub off on me.
And I revealed as much to the man himself on May 13th, 1999, when we had the pleasure of hosting Lloyd Cole on an RTÉ light entertainment series I produced called ‘Kenny Live’ and for which he travelled over specially from New York. He played an acoustic Negatives number for us by way of promoting an upcoming live date in Dublin and was as gracious, smart, witty and swarthy as I’d long imagined he might be. Once I’d finished mortifying the pair of us after the show, he dropped a pre-release copy of The Negatives’ album into my lap and signed my copy of ‘Love Story’, his terrific 1995 solo elpee.
Curiously, he wasn’t the last member of The Commotions I encountered on that circuit either. The band’s bass-player, Lawrence Donegan, began a career in journalism immediately after the curtain came down for the group in 1989 and went on to become one of the most perceptive and insightful golf writers on the planet. During the mid-1990s, he spent twelve months in Creeslough in County Donegal – where he has family connections – and captured that experience, which included a stretch spent working the newsdesk at a local paper, in a terrific book, ‘No News At Throat Lake’. We welcomed Lawrence onto an episode of ‘The Late Late Show’ in October, 1999, during which he plugged his book and discussed Daniel O’Donnell at length with the presenter, Pat Kenny.
And after which, having embarrassed myself so spectacularly with his former colleague in the same green room six months earlier, I opted to leave well enough alone and made a point of not discussing the past. Perfect, imperfect or otherwise.