JOHNNY MARR AND THE LONG SHADOWS

Into Paradise
courtesy of Fanning Sessions

 

Johnny Marr’s kept his Into Paradise hang-ups very quiet, hasn’t he ?

The Dublin band, who endured for the guts of a decade from the mid-1980s, were one of the first acts signed to Keith Cullen’s then-fledgling Setanta Records imprint and paved a path on many levels for a far better known slew who came after them. They were never the coolest or the most radical band on that label but were certainly one of its most complicated and, consequently, its most interesting. And they certainly generated no little blind devotion :- it’s just that there was never quite enough of it to help them pay their way.

 

 

David Long, the band’s formidable singer and leader, is easily among my favourite ever Irish songwriters and performers. For those who still haven’t converted, and history tells us that there may be a few, I respectfully suggest the band’s debut E.P. ‘Blue Light’ [1989], it’s 1992 single, ‘[Why Don’t You] Move Over’ and ‘Sleep’ [1991], Into Paradise’s own ‘How Soon Is Now’. That epic, seven-minute riff-song first featured as a b-side and was once played in its entirety on Irish national afternoon radio by Larry Gogan, a long-time champion of the band, as he was indeed of all new Irish music. And I recommend it as as good a starting point as any.

 

All three cuts – and I could have easily mentioned twenty-five – are fine representative aspects of the band’s more dominant personalities ;- serrated guitar pop, Crombie-cut indie and sulphurous rock music.

 

I’m happy to report that, although we’ve basically completed a full-on life swap in the twenty-five years since we last shared a bar tab, I’m still in touch with Long, even if its  irregular enough stuff.  He e-mails on links to his most recent work and general updates from his garret in An Ríocht and sounds, on the surface at least, like he’s keeping busy and well.

 

That once-furious, dense Into Paradise sound has been lazily characterised, diluted and transubstantiated over the years but I can still picture Long – with respect to Seamus Heaney and his gorgeous poem, ‘North’ – ‘hammering away at the curve of a bay with the powers of the Atlantic thundering behind him’. A vintage craftsman, whiling the small hours in an improvised studio, knocking out the riffs, whipping it up on the biscuit tins, sorcering out the tunes.

 

I’ve been thinking of him a lot over the last few weeks – him and the secular powers of the Atlantic – as I’ve lazily warmed to the new Johnny Marr album, ‘Call The Comet’. Which, like a lot of David’s own solo material – and at this stage there’s been quite a bit, even if you have to search hard for it – is another personable, breezy affair cut in the restless likeness of its creator.

 

 

Marr’s story is a remarkable one by any standards and although those who came of age during the 1980s with a love of music have long been familiar with the bones, I’d contend that its body lacked real meat until his first fully-blown solo album, ‘The Messenger’, in 2013, after which he finally cut loose. His fine memoir, ‘Set The Boy Free’, released three years later and in which he captured the topline aspects of a long, prolific and varied career, joined many of the dots. While beyond on the main stage, the stick-thin bridesmaid, long-time sidekick and flexible hand-for-hire, finally made it up the aisle and found a genuine voice and an escape route out of the shadow.

 

‘Call The Comet’ will almost certainly be troubling the All-Star selectors at the end of the season as they try and get the year’s best and most stylish fifteen releases into their best positions. Its certainly the most cohesive of Marr’s three solo albums to date, for sure. And even after almost forty years at the crease, there’s something perennially re-assuring about his work. Indeed it’s instructive to see it listed chronologically if only to remind oneself of its scale, spread and the diversity of it, and the easy command of the fundamentals that have long under-pinned it.

 

But he’s never been one to pause it on the past, either. Like the great Cork hurler, Christy Ring, he’s long known that better is always around the corner.

 

Into Paradise were never as overtly influenced by The Smiths as they were by two other Manchester bands, Joy Division and Magazine, the group founded by Howard Devoto after he left Buzzcocks in 1977. Like many other sussed young bands during that period, they certainly saw how The Smiths took a more lateral approach, not just in respect of their sound and demeanour but in how they related to the music industry itself. Even if  much of it was uncompromising to the point of being ultimately self-defeating.

 

And Into Paradise would have certainly seen merit and possibilities in there somewhere :- every half awake, semi-decent emerging group at the time did.

 

The band’s most dominant primary influence, though, was a relatively outlying band from South London called The Sound, founded and led by the late Adrian Borland, who subsequently produced the first two Into Paradise albums, ‘Under The Water’ and ‘Churchtown’. The Sound, whose positive critical notices never translated into either a broader breakthrough or good coin, were themselves a powerful cross-breed ;- a pent-up, new wave combo who took many of their lyrical cues from the cold simplicity of Joy Division and who sound, for the sake of reference, like a compound of the best of Echo and the Bunnymen, early Cure and even earlier U2.

 

 

The Sound were falling apart at the same time as The Smiths. Johnny Marr ended 1988 playing live with Bryan Ferry and was quickly co-opted into the ranks of The The while  Adrian Borland was recovering from a serious mental breakdown as his band – critically-acclaimed and a commercial disaster – had reached the end of its days. A world away in Dublin 14, meanwhile, Into Paradise were finally making hay, natural heirs on the move.

 

Several of their peers – Something Happens, The Stars Of Heaven, A House and especially their South Dublin neighbours, Blue In Heaven, with whom they’ve had a long-standing association – had already driven on, inked deals and were dropping quality wax. But Into Paradise were late bloomers in this respect – a recurring theme across the group’s career – and were never so much behind the curve as utterly unsuited to it, almost disdainful of it.

 

Its not that they were in any way less personable than any of their associates within the milieu at The Underground Bar on Dublin’s Dame Street ;- if anything, they were terrific fun and always great company. Its just they just lacked a simple signature dish. But quick wins and affable pop songs never came easily to them, and there was no ‘Snowball Down’, ‘Burn Clear’, ‘Widow’s Walk’ or ‘Across My Heart’ to remember them by. While others tied themselves to verse-chorus-verse-bridge-verse-fade, Into Paradise preferred to deal in texture, sound, nuance and fracture instead.

 

They sounded like they just wanted to implode live on stage, where they were genetically incapable of being as playful, flippant or fey as they were off of it. And they were also exceptionally straight – you could say they were dour, albeit smelling of cordite – and, both live and on record, just couldn’t do the light stuff. Which is to their credit, but …

 

Into Paradise aspired, instead, to the layered, grimly fiendish industrial sound pioneered by another late producer, Manchester-born Martin Hannett, at Cargo Studios on Kenion Street in Rochdale during the late 1970s. A sound that’s arguably best captured on early releases by the self-same Joy Division and Magazine, and perhaps also on key releases by Gang Of Four and Psychedelic Furs.

 

[As an aside, I don’t believe its entirely co-incidental that Into Paradise were so well got with another of their peers, An Emotional Fish. A meaty four-piece who, beyond their obvious pop songs, also traded in the same sort of depth. And much of whose later and more interesting material, especially that produced and engineered by Alan Moulder, is as curious and expansive, if not always as successfully executed, as anything that emerged from Ireland during the 1990s. And I include My Bloody Valentine here].

 

The Smiths were together for only five years, during which Johnny Marr was at his most prolific. He regularly reminds folk that he was 24 when the band split and that he’s now spent six times as long working for himself as he did as Morrissey’s writing partner. But even as a callow youth, he boasted a fine, broad frame of reference, from where he borrowed and lifted as he pleased.

 

Morrissey and Marr might well have invented indie – Marr also does a fine line in self-deprecation – but in as much as Morrissey routinely dipped into his own catalogue of favourite books, plays and films for couplets, one-liners and pay-offs, Marr too would infrequently pull a familiar riff or an old refrain from beneath his fisherman’s hat.

 

 

And he’s even borrowing from himself at this stage. One of the softer cuts from ‘Call The Comet’, ‘Hi Hello’, lifts its gut from two old Smiths numbers, ‘Half A Person’ and, particularly, ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’, which itself pulls from Patti Smith’s ‘Walking Barefoot’. While over the course of its dozen other cuts, ‘Call The Comet’ is an anorak’s all-you-can-eat buffet.

 

A record that lyrically imagines a future where human values [must] trump commercial and economic ones, Marr moves wilfully from one past further into another, at several junctures all the way back to Rochdale. And at its most interesting, ‘Call The Comet’ summons the emerging, desolate sound of Manchester just before The Smiths. The titles alone – ‘My Eternal’, ‘New Dominions’, ‘Actor Attractor’ – nod to those two ground-breaking Joy Division albums, ‘Unknown Pleasures’ and ‘Closer’ that, perhaps above everything else, succeeded in capturing the mood and humours of the forlorn suburbs in which they were conceived.

 

Elsewhere, the raw popular mandate is served by the radio-friendly, souped-up opener, ‘Rise’, the fibrous ‘Hey Angel’ and the closer, ‘Different Gun’. While in the middle order, ‘Spiral Cities’ borrows a guitar strain from ‘A Love Like Blood’ by Killing Joke. No bad thing, either.

 

But I can’t listen to it without thinking of Into Paradise. ‘Call The Comet’ is awash with familiar David Long and Adrian Borland tropes :- the melodies are multi-layered and, lyrically, the world is presented as a daunting prospect, the future riven with fear. To trainspotters and long-time Into Paradise oiks, the record is flecked with familiar bits, riffs and progressions.

 

‘The Tracers’ – the first single could, for instance, be any one of a number of  Into Paradise cuts, but particularly ‘Burns My Skin’, from the band’s only major label album, ‘Churchtown’, released in 1991. And when Marr takes those lethal guitar solos – some of which are even up there with the magnificent lead lick on ‘Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before’ – and then spoons on those production layers and the insulation – I’m reminded of that prime Into Paradise cargo. Much of which has long been ignored, still-born, derelict and forgotten.

 

I’m reminded of those greatest hits that never quite cut through :- ‘Here With You’, ‘Piece Of Paradise’, ‘I Want You’, ‘Bring Me Closer’, ‘Tomorrow’, ‘Red Light’, ‘Dreaming’, ‘Sleep’, ‘Move Over’ and ‘Stand Still’. And you’d be thinking of Long, squirreled away down in An Riócht, laughing away to himself against the sound of the Atlantic thunder.

 

 

But ‘Call The Comet’ is also the sound of contemporary technology, time and money, luxuries rarely afforded Into Paradise, and Marr’s grasp of production is as finely-honed and precise now as it was since he first began to formally direct the sound of The Smiths thirty years ago.

 

Into Paradise were never blessed with Johnny Marr’s gift for casually knocking out the  wonder so effortlessly and so prodigiously. But thirty years on, its interesting to hear their many ghosts, deliberately or, more than likely not, on one of the spikiest and most robust records of the year.

 

‘Call The Comet’ is a terrific Johnny Marr album, easily his best full-blooded solo elpee. But much of it, to these ears, is also the biggest and brightest sounding album Into Paradise never quite made.

 

Adrian Borland endured an adult lifetime of mental illness and took his own life in April, 1999, when he threw himself in front of a train in London. He was 41 years old when he died. A number of years previously, he arrived unannounced into Dublin and, for a while, was taken in and minded by Into Paradise. He was drinking heavily, was in a bad way and it required a real effort to have him repatriated with his family in London.

 

This aspect of his life is covered in depth and at length – as of course is his career in music – in Marc Waltman’s 2016 feature-length documentary film, ‘Walking In The Opposite Direction’.

 

His band, The Sound, were a primary influence on many bands, not just Into Paradise.  And perhaps, consciously or not, even Johnny Marr.

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