One of the more attractive and visceral away trips for many of those involved in Gaelic games in Dublin is the winding drive up to Johnny Fox’s pub in Glengullen, the short walk across the wild mountainside and over to Stars Of Erin, one of the smallest clubs in the county and one of the most unique.
I’ve made my way up there regularly over the years with my daughters: they play for a neighbouring club and so matches and local blitzes at The Stars are a regular fixture for us. And if the games aren’t going well, the furze, the thin air and the views will invariably break the fall. So when your pocket-sized, eight year-old goalkeeper is having hassle with her air hurling, or if her ear-muffs aren’t fitting as comfortably as they might beneath her out-sized helmet, you’re still close enough and high enough to touch the face of God.
And then there’s the trip back down: the sort of journey that can easily lead off-track. Often the four miles or so across county bounds and into the new-age village of Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow, where the artisan coffee and ice cream will quickly deaden a fella’s wallet. The essence of The Stars Of Erin is captured here in a terrific, re-assuring Irish Times profile by Ian O’Riordan that should be required reading for anyone swamped in the existential quagmire that goes with volunteering in the country’s largest sports organisation.
But while the bigger, more populated local clubs that surround them – Ballyboden St. Endas, Kilmacud Crokes, Cuala and even our own up in Ballinteer Saint Johns – have the numbers, scale, sponsors and profile to keep them trucking on another plane altogether, none of them have the rare beauty you get up at The Stars.
Which might explain how and why, every time I set foot up there, my mind is distracted towards another, off-road local wonder, The Stars Of Heaven, the one-time Dublin guitar band who, every bit as rarefied as their cosmic brothers and sisters in the mountains, still have an enigma of their own. Matched only, over many years, by the extent of their legend to a small but fiercely loyal band of anoraks and collectors.
If positive critical notices and unquestioning, die-hard fanaticism could be harvested, measured and sold, The Stars would have been one of the best-selling Irish acts of the last millennium. But they were never designed for that in the first place and their billing in contemporary Irish music history – honourable mentions alongside some of the city’s bigger beasts, references in the index and the odd footnote in broader pieces about guitars and the side-influence of country music – is fitting.
To this end they’re still name-dropped frequently by men – and its practically always men – of a certain shape, age and short-sightedness – who invariably remember them more for what they weren’t and not for what they were.
The Stars might not have appreciated it at the time, but the rolling uncertainty that seemed to dog them throughout their six year existence may actually have conspired to bring the best from them. And they consistently did it their own way, regardless of how cack-handed that way sometimes looked and felt.
Sound-wise, they stood tall as an imperious guitar band with a wide frame of reference that went far beyond the obvious indie tropes of the period. Even if it was R.E.M., in the first instance, who enabled The Stars Of Heaven with whom, on many levels, they had plenty of common ground. Their bloodline went back to classic Americana, from Gram Parsons and The Byrds to The Band, with a flush Velvets finish and, often, a country swagger.
In the great traditions of the Australian band, The Go-Betweens – to whom they weren’t entirely dissimilar either – the writing duties were shared between the band’s primary pointmen, Stephen Ryan and Stan Erraught and, in their pomp, their material was as terrific as any and, generally, better and more tentacled than most. And yet The Stars could often be a frustrating and inconsistent live ticket – understandable enough given how fragile they often sounded on record – conveying a regular sense they might simply disintegrate mid-number and have to be carried off of a sound-stage somewhere. All of which only added to their lustre, of course, as regulars at what was once The Underground Bar on Dame Street will attest.
The Stars were on the fringes of a cluster of emerging, guitar-driven Dublin groups that built up their earliest stock at that small downstairs venue operated by Jeff Brennan and his father, Noel, during the mid- 1980s. Among them Something Happens, A House, Rex And Dino, Backwards Into Paradise, Guernica, The Slowest Clock and, later, Power Of Dreams and Whipping Boy. As such, The Underground is rightly remembered as a vital and doggedly free-thinking stepping stone in the development of many of the country’s best and most interesting bands and performers during this time.
I’ve referred to Jeff, Noel and the venue on several occasions previously but easily the most perceptive and adroit piece on what is still one of Dublin’s most fondly-recalled dives is this first-person essay, written by one of the venue’s best-known graduates and a man who saw the place from every angle, including the tiny stage and what passed for the toilets.
The spirit of that bar and it’s small but obscenely colourful cohort of staff, patrons and various hangers-on – you’d go there as quickly for the nightly floorshow as you would for the music or the beer – is also captured, with contributions from some of its other alumni, on a short album, ‘Live At The Underground’, that was recorded there over consecutive nights in September, 1985. Released on Jeff’s own, strictly one-off label, Fear And Loathing Records, the record was primarily sold – or in many cases just given away – from behind the bar. On it, early warning notices were served by Something Happens and A House, alongside The Stars Of Heaven, who contributed ‘Hey Little Child’ to the short, sharp six-tracker.
The history of Irish rock music during the 1980s is defined to a huge degree by U2’s global breakthrough and, in its slipstream, the industry’s determination, doomed and reckless as it was, to locate others like them around Ireland. But unlike Something Happens and A House, their contemporaries on ‘Live At The Underground’ and in whose company they’re frequently referenced, The Stars Of Heaven never got away on a major label. They fetched up, instead, on Rough Trade Records, whose revered founder, Geoff Travis, in keeping with much of the band’s narrative, just didn’t like their first and only fully-formed studio album, ‘Speak Slowly’.
So while, in their broken frame, The Stars were the absolute antithesis of U2’s stadium-sized ballast, they stayed outside many of the left-field conventions of the day too. Even if, in one of those unlikely codas so typical of the cracked looking glass of Irish popular music history, they briefly consorted with U2’s label, Mother Records, towards the end of their career. For whom they recorded, with the one-time R.E.M. producer, Mitch Easter, but never actually released any material.
I first came across The Stars on Dave Fanning’s Rock Show on what was then RTÉ Radio 2FM – where else ? – during that period in 1985 when they’d released their debut single, ‘Clothes Of Pride/’All About You’, on Eamonn Carr’s Hotwire label and were making regular cameos at The Underground. After which they seemed to stay resident on the edge of everything, perhaps too tender and lyrically delicate for the general mood of the period, which could all be a bit rushed, loud and frantic and into which many of their peers slipped seamlessly.
And I should say that, to my mind, Stephen Ryan is easily the best Irish lyricist I’ve come across in my years spent hunting and collecting and, as recently as his 2015 album with The Drays, ‘Look Away Down Collins Avenue’, was still at it, working both ‘antihistamine’ and ‘Roger from Supertramp’ into one of the many magnificent songs on that elpee. His ability to knit words and sentiment so easily and convincingly would be worth a long-read of its own if one didn’t feel so consistently inadequate by comparison just looking at his work laid out.
It’s no surprise that The Stars seemed to keep their best work for the small hours. They recorded a number of mesmerising late night radio sessions over the years, initially for Fanning’s ‘Rock Show’ and then more notably for John Peel’s BBC One show where, in the dead of night, they sounded for once like they were perfectly in synch with time and space. Those recordings were made available on the Rough Trade mini-albums, ‘Sacred Heart Hotel’ and ‘Rain On The Sea’, which were both released in 1987. [The latter is actually the former, with an additional four track E.P. attached].
The Stars had everything and nothing in common with their peers back at The Underground. In their suede jackets, plaid shirts and smart boots – the uniform of the time, the clothes of pride – even at their loudest they still kept their guitars in check, in open defiance of many of the core conventions of the time. Like several of those who came after them – Hinterland, Brian, Villagers and Jubilee Allstars, particularly – it was the quiet and the space between the bars that determined them and set them apart. The Stars really did come alive in the dark.
Which is why I always found it funny that the front cover of The Stars’1988 studio album, ‘Speak Slowly’, featured a close-up shot of a solid steel wheel on one of C.I.É.’s rolling stock of trains. Carefully assembled and crafted in the old school, The Stars’ own casters often moved very slowly too and they were also just as liable to break down without warning.
Which isn’t to say that The Stars lacked sturdy engineering and heft: they could wig out with the best and indeed the worst of them but they were often far too delicate for their own bodies and in this respect, had far more in common with the likes of another local band, Hey Paulette, than they did with the more forceful, psychotic characters in The Underground. Apart, perhaps, from The Slowest Clock, with whom they shared a kindred philosophy far more than they ever did a sound.
The Slowest Clock were another of the Dublin bands of that period who were far too interesting, and all too frequently bored, for their own good. Powered by a furious guitar sound that regularly filled the premium spaces left by angled, full-bodied bass runs, they were an American underground outfit in all but birth-certificate – classic Velvets, Television, Husker Du – that set Sir Henry’s in Cork alight once or twice over the years. They sounded nothing at all like The Stars, and yet shared far more of their characteristics than one might imagine.
But I don’t think that The Stars’ influence has been heard as obviously or as overtly on any Irish band as it was in the early 2000s when the South Dublin pop band, The Thrills, were making hay, front covers and commercially successful, sun-blushed records. The Thrills were ardent students, and fawning fans, of Whipping Boy, the Dublin/Kildare outfit that first cut a memorable dash as noisy, sneering young men at The Underground.
They released three terrific albums on Virgin Records that, to my mind, just got better and more interesting – and less commercially popular – as they went. And from the get-go, I detected a real Stars influence at work in them. Apart, entirely, from the shared set of influences and the incorrigible, horizontal feel to much of their output, Conor Deasy’s breathy vocal delivery – and that perennial struggle to scale the top of his register – was instantly redolent of Stephen Ryan’s most attractive vocal feature.
The Thrills were enthusiastic collectors in their own right and were well plugged into the history of contemporary Irish music. In this respect, they’d have been more than familiar with The Stars and their fine back catalogue.
Much of which, in one form or another, is compiled on ‘Unfinished Dreaming’, a substantial compendium of the band’s material that was eventually released in 1999 after a painstaking gestation of many years on the small Dublin label, Independent Records. And lovingly curated by David O’Grady, who I first encountered around the fringes of the Dublin left-field scene thirty years ago and who has evidently defied science in the decades since by looking younger now than when he was first clocking me into venues on Engine Alley’s guestlists.
On one of the versions of ‘Unfinished Dreaming’, The Stars are snapped on the front sleeve, outside of someone’s sash window, looking in as forlornly as usual, at an ornately decorated front room. As self-aware and as self-deprecating until the end, they’re still speaking to us from beyond the tomb.
CODA :– All four members of the band stayed involved in music to Varying extents. Stephen Ryan went on to lead the rowdy Revenants and then subsequently, and currently, The Drays, while Stan fetched up as a member of The Sewing Room, who laid the extent of their ambition bare on their debut album, ‘And Nico’. Peter O’Sullivan, the bass player, went on to play with a good-time, loosely-formed Tex-Mex collective, The Wilf Brothers. And I last encountered the band’s drummer, Bernard Walsh, when he sat in as a member of one of the regular backing bands we used to use on The Late Late Show, although eagle-eyed Stars- watchers will frequently see him credited as a stills photographer on numerous Irish-produced dramas and feature films. His name often cited alongside Ray Harman, the Something Happens guitarist and now an award-winning composer for the big screen.