To my mind, far too much contemporary music writing – and indeed arts coverage in general – has become identity politics by another name. Show me your Amazon, Spotify and Twitter history and I’ll tell you who you are, what you’re thinking and who I think you should be, basically.
Maybe it’s always been thus and the growth of the internet has just made it easier to join the dots and to compartmentalise ? Either way, the politics of identity – and the politics of class, arguably the last taboo for journalism – are central to any faithful telling of the story of The Thrills, the South Dublin pop band who, for five years, cut a considerable dash and made a real indent into the mainstream. But if their rise was meteoric – and notwithstanding their earlier incarnations and a rudderless spell spent hacking around the local circuit, I still contend that it was – then their implosion was just as spectacular.
The Thrills have a terrific yarn to tell and, who knows, they may opt to tell it someday. In the meantime, we’re left with three albums on a major label, decent commercial headway and a series of paper-thin stereotypes and crudely formed generalisations for our troubles.
The short history of the band can be read, on one level, as the parable of the Irish state between 2002 and 2008. The band embodied, especially on their carefree debut album, ‘So Much For The City’, much of the mood of the country during it’s Celtic Tiger period, those years of sustained, unprecedented growth and, for many, mindless and reckless optimism and abandon. And during which Ireland, a state then not yet one hundred years old, encountered widespread economic prosperity for the first time in its short life. Much of which, as we sadly know now, was constructed, with little oversight or self-regulation, by a compliant banking system – on sand and with pyrite-contaminated concrete. The consequences of that national giddiness are still being severely felt all over Ireland, ten years after the inevitable crash that provided the sting in the tiger’s tail.
The Thrills – good-looking, aspirational, young, ambitious and naïve – epitomised much of the pimped-up confidence of the Tiger years. And, for as long as they were active on a major label, provided a welcome antidote to many of the more monochrome Dublin outfits who’d gone before them.
The Blades, for instance, had rooted many of their songs in the long-running social soap opera of Dublin’s south inner-city during the late 1970s and early 1980s. In their slipstream, A House, from West Dublin, were determined by a cynicism rarely seen previously in Irish popular music and hardly seen again since. While across on the Northside, The Brilliant Trees, Damien Dempsey and Aslan were minding their manors and giving authentic voices to the many they encountered who were without.
And all of these outfits shared sharp, finely-tuned pop sensibilities, as well as a decent command of the short form. With which they brought varying degrees of insight and pain from a markedly different world located a matter of post-codes away from the capital’s main drags. So much for the city, indeed.
The Thrills, on the other hand, did what their name suggested ;- they were the urgent, hormone-fused sound of young graduates on a prolonged frat party a long way from home. For better and for worse – and there are many who scored them way down for it – there isn’t a hint of malice in anything they’ve ever committed to tape.
Dublin bands at a particular level have traditionally been photographed either on local beaches, against grainy, industrial back-drops or inside their rehearsal spaces, where they’ve routinely looked either frozen, scared, po-faced and often a combination of all three. The Thrills were almost always snapped, instead, in glorious technicolour and in exotic locations that were always more Venice Beach and less Dollymount Strand.
And it helped, of course, that they could take a decent close-up and looked like they enjoyed being photographed. In their carefully- styled vintage duds, they made like they were having a good time all of the time. And with a stash of irrepressible, radio-friendly pop songs in their locker, there was a time when they fleetingly had the world in their hands.
It’s an indication of the scale of their impact – and a reflection too of the dearth of genuine personalities in Ireland – that, as soon as they’d made an initial chart breakthrough in Britain, they found themselves regularly lampooned on ‘Gift Grub’, a comedy insert on ‘The Ian Dempsey Breakfast Show’, a weekday radio programme on the the national station, Today FM, where they featured alongside some of the more prominent political, entertainment and sports figures of the day.
‘Gift Grub’ has long given a soft soaping to the lighter end of the daily news lists and, in the absence of consistent writing and strong editing, its focus tends instead towards characters whose distinctive accents and verbal tics can be most easily replicated. And so The Thrills, with their soft, unfeasibly polite and American-blend South Dublin accents, became easy radio comedy fodder alongside staple characters like the Cork-born footballer, Roy Keane, the Donegal-born entertainer, Daniel O’Donnell and the rambling, shambling Drumcondra-born Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern.
But back in the real world, The Thrills career was on the crescent of one of those dramatic rollercoasters that often back-dropped their publicity photographs or their videos ;- they quickly gained a decent commercial foothold, sold records and made a real noise. Just as easy to lampoon was the shameless thievery that characterised their sound, had the country’s comedy writers bothered to root around under the bonnet.
Well-read students of popular music history, The Thrills borrowed freely and to good effect. From the sun-kissed aspects of The Beach Boys to the clinical, designer-built friendliness of The Monkees and the confident but surly swagger of The Byrds, they were, at their peak, clinically re-parcelling old school tropes and, to the trained ear, the odd re-cycled riff. And they were a terrific burn.
But The Thrills came of age on record and an upward critical curve is clear to anyone who stayed the course with them for the four years from ‘So Much For The City’ in 2003 until ‘Teenager’ in 2007. Over the course of three albums on Virgin Records/EMI, they left a footprint that is as considerable as the division in Irish public opinion they created as they did so. And while they’ve not been entirely purged from the recent history of contemporary Irish music, their achievements – and, by current standards, those have been considerable – are far too easily lost in the wash.
By the time their pedalo ran aground – just after their record company heard the final mixes of ‘Teenager’, I suspect – not only had much of The Thrills’ fanbase moved on but the national optimism they’d sound-tracked back in Ireland had been spectacularly sundered. Against the backdrop of an international economic collapse – that led to the nationalisation of the Irish banking system, a period of prolonged austerity and a re-alignment of established political thinking – The Thrills just sounded utterly out of time. Like many others all over the country they were made redundant almost over-night.
But on record they’d developed a second skin and it’s a real shame that, just as they’d started to incorporate some of the more interesting aspects of the R.E.M. style-book into their sound, they were already whistling in the wind. Indeed creatively, they’d come very far very quickly and, by 2007, The Thrills were a much more sinewy proposition to the green-beats hand-picked by Morrissey to open for him during his fine comeback shows in Dublin’s Ambassador Theatre five years previously. And where they looked wafer-thin but to the manor born.
It’s to the band’s credit too that, unlike Bradford, The Ordinary Boys, Phranc and a host of others, The Thrills survived Morrissey’s infamous patronage – when it comes to endorsing new bands, he has the Midas touch in reverse – and went on to achieve mainstream success quickly thereafter.
Led by Conor Deasy, the band’s unconscionably good-looking and hirsute lead singer and their heartbeat and pulse, bass-player and guitarist Daniel Ryan, The Thrills’ debut album, ‘So Much For The City’ became, for many, a free-wheeling national soundtrack of sorts after its release in 2002. Apart from the singles, ‘Santa Cruz’, ‘One Horse Town’, ‘Big Sur’ and ‘Don’t Steal Our Sun’, that elpee also contains the mighty ‘Your Love Is Like Las Vegas’ and, across its eleven tracks, not a single word or accent to suggest where the band came from.
One of the recurring criticisms levelled at them – and, by any standards, The Thrills seemed to be held to account far more aggressively than many of their peers – is that their horizontal, JI-visa view of the world was just far too flimsy and narrow. The suggestion being that The Thrills could instead – like one of their own favourite Irish bands, Whipping Boy – have been documenting the minutiae of [sub]urban life in Dublin as opposed to that in San Diego, New York and California. They were scarcely believable, basically.
I can’t recall the same charges being ever put, though, to Snow Patrol, a band who share many of The Thrills key characteristics and who, at the same time, emerged in similar fashion and to the same effect. But I can certainly recall the core argument.
So I am reminded of the guts of the 1991 pamphlet by the writer and academic, Desmond Fennell – ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing’ – in which he took the poet Seamus Heaney to task for what the author perceived to be a failure to adequately address the plight of Northern Catholics within much of the poet and writer’s work.
Fennell, now in his 80s, has long been an engaging and free-thinking chronicler of Irish society and the nation’s character and, by 1991, had plenty of form. Throughout his considerable career – much of it spent abroad or on the fringes – he has rarely held back, especially on what he felt was the colonization of Irish art at the expense of more prevalent national issues ;- the ‘cleansing of Irish literature of Irishness’.
And yes, The Thrills were far from perfect. Lyrically, especially, they could be unforgivably naïve, while Conor was never the most gifted singer :- he had a limited vocal range at the best of times and, live, he often struggled to tip the top end. All three of the band’s albums also feature an amount of rockwool – more draught filler than decoration piece – while their specific cultural references, as these things do, have dated them quickly and badly.
But then there was the elephant loose on the beach :- the matter of the band’s background. They grew up in the South Dublin suburbs of Blackrock, Stillorgan and Ballinteer – and their education. Deasy and Ben Carrigan, the band’s drummer, are past pupils of Gonzaga College in Ranelagh, one of Dublin’s most elite and expensive fee-paying schools and more renowned, historically, for producing more lawyers and judges than rock and rollers.
And it would be naïve to think that – either consciously or not – this was never a factor in how the band was initially received and, latterly, how The Thrills were critically assessed at home. Indeed The Irish Times was quick out of the blocks and, by July, 2003, was already sniping away under the cover of a ‘style over substance’ piece as if the band were bringing nothing but connections and good looks to the party. And whatever questions that existed around the band’s frame of reference were amplified by the sense that they were simply killing time, just monkeying around.
Which is, in my view, to seriously under-estimate the records they left behind them. And which got better – and less commercially successful – as they went. Their last album, ‘Teenager’ was led by the sturdy single, ‘Nothing Changes Around Here’ but that title was a real misnomer ;- by then everything had changed and The Thrills were burning oil. Curiously enough, the promo video featured Conor Deasy, alone, walking yet another sea-front, with the rest of the band nowhere. It had been merely five years since the clip for ‘Don’t Steal Our Sun’ where, in the worst traditions of The Monkees, a gang of pale Irish goofballs fetch up to shoot hoops on a public court with local slam-dunking magicians.
And this much was apparent throughout the exchange that Conor Deasy conducted with Michael Ross for a long feature piece in The Sunday Times’ Irish edition in 2007 where he sounded like he’d just been ground down. It had been a relentless half-decade of record-tour-write-record-tour, underpinned by The Thrills’ dual efforts to impact in America and, as a pop group, to remain in the moment. And to this end they’re not the first band – and certainly not the first Irish band – to have been torn asunder by the scale of the U.S. inter-state highways and all that they bring with them.
The Thrills were never the finished article but, for five years, they were one of the most interesting and freshest Irish bands at play in the deeper end of the pool. And like many of the successful domestic acts who have divided the popular court here over the last forty years – U2, Sinéad O’Connor and The Boomtown Rats – The Thrills too have had their authenticity – or is it their audacity ? – fiercely questioned in their own backyards.
But it’s important and only fair that, in accurately assessing them, we play the ball and not the men.