I’ve written previously and at no little length about The Frank And Walters, to my mind the best pound-for-pound pop band the country has ever produced. It’s a story I know as well as anyone: I have a long and proud association with the group, especially with Paul and Ashley, that dates back to The Enterprise Bar at the end of Barrack Street in Cork during the memorable summer of 1990, when we first met. After which it was clear we had plenty of work ahead of us.
I’ve long made a case too for the rare gifts bestowed somewhere, sometime, on Paul Linehan, the band’s singer and primary songwriter and easily among the most intriguing, complicated, compelling and consistently under-regarded of his kind to have emerged from Ireland during the last three decades. The Frank And Walters may never have had the stylish, renewable range of their former label-mates, The Divine Comedy, or the contrary, convex pull of another of the Setanta Records pack, A House. But beneath the surface, their body of work – and at this stage that canon is a considerable one – tells a long story that’s as formidable as any and more distinctive than most, much of it carved from banana-shaped, first-hand local testimony.
I’ve been beating the drum long and hard for The Franks for almost thirty years now which, no doubt, has significantly discomforted a band that has instinctively preferred life in the lower keys. Someone, I guess, has to do it. And still they come, in their own time, from deep in the shadows, with a new record or an anniversary tour to keep the old-timers happy and, perhaps, the home fires burning.
I saw them in a dive in Manchester last Autumn, on a dreary Sunday night around the back of The Arndale Centre where, to a partisan, mis-shaped crowd, they played every single song like they were doing so for the last time. But that’s The Franks for you: they’ve never known it any differently and, like Elvis, they’ve long had that knack to make everyone feel special.
But their story has never been a straight-forward one either and so, on one hand, I’m not overly surprised that, twenty-five years since they performed on Top Of The Pops and achieved their highest ever chart placing in Britain with ‘After All’ – the song that unfairly defines them – they exist once again outside of their loyal support-base, however fleetingly.
Like much of the country, I’ve been gob-smacked by the tender genius of Peter Foott’s Cork-based drama, ‘The Young Offenders’, which has played on the RTÉ 2 schedules for the last number of weeks. And which, as a proud Corkman in exile, who left the city for good in 1994 to work at Ireland’s national broadcaster, makes me utterly compromised on at least two different levels.
But to borrow from one of many commentators on social media last week, the chatty coming-of-age drama series that follows the thickly-accented mis-adventures of Conor and Jock, is easily the most perceptive, pointed and outrageously insightful observational documentary series ever made about Cork city, it’s people and their many, many nuances.
The first series closed out earlier this week with a crowd scene on a hi-jacked double-decker bus that featured a fully-fledged choral singalong led by a knife-wielding, half-simple local gurrier, Billy Murphy. And when the hostages on board the Number 8 break into a mighty performance of ‘After All’, the series definitively cements its greatness. That scene – in which Sandra Bullock’s ‘Speed’ meets The Frank And Walters’ single, ‘The Happy Busman’ – is already among the country’s best ever television moments. To anyone from Cork, it’ll hardly be bettered.
Myself and ‘After All’ go way back to a semi-detached house in Morden, in South West London, where The Franks set up shop in 1992 after they’d first signed to Go Discs from Setanta Records, the small label run by Keith Cullen that had initially broken the band. That house became variously a rehearsal studio, a writing room, a merchandising lock-up, record company annex and refuge for the bewildered. Imagine the four-door dwelling in The Beatles’ film, ‘Help’, occupied by Cha and Mia, Billa O’Connell and Paddy Comerford and you’re getting there.
And it was in the kitchen there that Paul Linehan first played me the guts of ‘After All’ on an acoustic guitar, after which we went to work on the harmonies and the structure – I’m almost certain we made the original verse the chorus – as we used to do regularly back then. The band was preparing to record it’s first album and was well into the pre-production phase: ‘After All’ was one of the last of the new songs written for that elpee, ‘Trains, Boats And Planes’, and was certainly worth waiting for.
I wish I could say now that I knew instinctively it was a hit single, but I can’t. I actually thought that ‘This Is Not A Song’ was a far better bet and will still make the case for it. But what I do know is that, on the long train ride back out to West Ealing the following morning, I could still remember every single line of ‘After All’.
Its greatness is in it’s simplicity – its actually a very easy song to play and, as I knew straight away, to remember – and then latterly in its darker aspects, which are almost always ignored. Ostensibly a love song that’s as persistent as it is beguiling, ‘After All’ nods to religion, distraction, loneliness and contemplation, all wrapped around a formidable Ian Broudie production. [Its worth noting here that the song was re-recorded several times and, by any standards, there is no comparison between the version on the album, produced by Edwyn Collins, and the eventual single version.]
Like the improbable television series on which it now features, ‘After All’ also has a broad, cross-generational appeal: like any great pop song, it’s easily re-purposed and is as likely to feature at a wedding ceremony as it is at a wedding reception as it is to be sung on the football terraces.
And, as such, a giddy, full-on, unashamedly partisan performance of ‘After All’ was just a perfect – and maybe, just the only – way to conclude ‘The Young Offenders’, which shares not only many of the song’s characteristics in its dramatic tone and style but stars, basically, the full panoply of a cast routinely chronicled in numerous Frank And Walters songs since 1990. Long-time band watchers will, in that wonderful hi-jacking scene, have noted the likes of Andy James, the happy busman, John and Sue, the nervous lovers, Timmy, the trainspotter, Davy Chase, the local hard feen and Mrs. Xavier, the single-parent who’s been left behind, as prominent support characters. Variously love-sick, awkward, hopeless and, ultimately, tender and harmless, and with not a hint of malice in any of them.
And of course none moreso than the knife-wielding gom himself, Billy Murphy, [played magnificently by Shane Casey], one of the year’s most supple and brilliantly improbably television heroes and who, in action, thought and deed, is redolent of those curious Cork chancers and gobdaws long considered to be outside, rogue, native and curious.
And who, since 1990, have been given a voice in the many, many terrific songs of The Frank And Walters.