The story of David Gray’s first decade as a recording artist is a terrific one, irrespective of what you think of him or his music. It’s also probably the single most enduring legacy of the lo-fi music television series, ‘No Disco’, which was first broadcast twenty-five years ago this week on what was then Ireland’s second national channel, Network 2. It just doesn’t seem possible – or proper – to assess the impact of one without acknowledging the influence of the other.
As one of those responsible for ‘No Disco’, a series that eventually ran for the guts of ten years, on a shoestring budget, from a small space in RTÉ’s regional offices in Cork, I know the story of its origins better than anyone and have previously written about it at length. Unlike many of the terrific groups and writers we routinely featured on that series, I won’t be re-cycling old stories or familiar riffs here.
‘No Disco’ still has a resonance, fading as it might be, for a cohort of men and women of a particular age who, before the popular emergence of the internet and during the earliest days of the mobile telephone, used the series as a visual companion to much of what Dave Fanning and John Peel were doing on their late night music radio shows on RTÉ Radio 2FM and BBC Radio One respectively. And that’s how we saw our role, pretty much, and how we regarded the whole enterprise, slipshod and haphazard as our operation down in sticks actually was.
Donal Dineen, from Rathmore in County Kerry, was ‘No Disco’’s first presenter. In the sense that the series – in its earliest iteration at least – was in any way presenter-led or dependent. I’d soldiered with him for a while on the fringes of what then passed for a local music industry, fetching up in all sorts of quare places and attempting one scheme after the next. Which is how I was there with him, during Easter week, 1993, in a house in the foothills of the Dublin mountains, when he was asked to review David Gray’s debut album, ‘A Century Ends’, for a free music paper, ‘Dropout’, with which we were both involved.
It was as basic and unsuspecting as that. ‘Dropout’ tended to push the more sensitive and introspective new releases – anything by The Go-Betweens, American Music Club and the Sarah Records roster, basically – towards the more sensitive end of its small team of volunteer contributors, ar son na cúise. That was Donal, pretty much.
It was there, in that semi-d in Knocklyon, that we both forged our first connection with the Manchester-born, Wales-reared singer-songwriter who’s since enjoyed considerable international success. David Gray has subsequently sold over twelve million albums worldwide and counting: twenty years ago, he released – for the first time – the biggest ever selling elpee in the history of popular music in Ireland, his self-funded fourth album, ‘White Ladder’.
That record, first issued on David’s own label in November, 1998, had been recorded the previous year in his apartment in London and, in keeping with his career graph to that point, died quickly on landing. It was re-released on Dave Mathews’ imprint, ATO, sixteen months later and eventually spent three years in the U.K. album chart.
The fact that David Gray was still clinging onto a career at all at that point was a pretty decent achievement. In the five preceding years he’d issued three long-players, ‘A Century Ends’ and ‘Flesh’ for Hut Records and ‘Sell, Sell, Sell’ for EMI and had been dropped by both major labels. Outside of Ireland – where he’d developed a considerable following and was headlining the biggest venues in the country – he was still a minor character, a curious footnote in the Hut Records story. At the time, the d-i-y ‘White Ladder’ had all the appearances of a desperate last punt into the small square in the hope of a break, the marking of an unpretty position as a century was ending.
It took Donal a couple of weeks in the company of ‘A Century Ends’ to see the magic that under-cuts its every layer. Even now he’s still not fazed by time and he moves at his own pace. But it’s not as if David’s album was especially instant, either: it’s a slow-boiler, utterly out of synch with the many moods of the time, launched without fanfare or broader record company support.
Understandable enough too, given that even within the confines of Hut Records, where his label-mates included the noisy, guitar-driven indie of The Verve, Drop Nineteens, Revolver and The Auteurs – he honked, at best, as a vanity signing. His Irish publicists at Virgin Records’ impressive Dublin offices, then located in a serious pile on Aylesbury Road, perhaps suspected as much too. They knew neither what to make of him or how to even begin to start selling him.
Little wonder, so, that Donal and myself took to him so instinctively: we were kindred spirits who understood his pain better than most. ‘No Disco’ had also fallen out of the sky unsupported, RTÉ’s own vanity project, lost in the broader television schedules, ticking a box, under-resourced and under-regarded and abjectly out of step with the broadcast conventions du jour. Which, on the one hand, is a series of back-handed compliments and, on the other, the definition of talking to the wall.
We hardly helped our own case by selling ‘No Disco’ as a radio series with a few pictures on top, a planet of sound to cheaply fill an hour of late-night television once every week. Into which David Gray quickly became our Rosebud: a toned singer-songwriter cut in the classic, lone star traditions of Bob Dylan and Neil Young but with a keen edge that made him all the more attractive to us, poetic young bucks that we were.
Up in Thurles, a couple of months previously, the line-up at Féile 1993 was headlined variously by Iggy Pop, INXS and Chris De Burgh, with the likes of A House, Spiritualized, The Frank And Walters, Teenage Fanclub, Whipping Boy, An Emotional Fish and The Shamen also featuring on a far-reaching undercard. Paul Brady, raised in Strabane, County Tyrone and easily one of the finest songwriters in the history of Irish folk and popular music, also took the stage in Semple Stadium that year and, if anything, it was with his extensive, acoustic-skewing songbook that David Gray was most in step. Indeed there are a couple of stand-out tracks on David’s second album, ‘Flesh’  that very clearly nod at Brady’s 1981 cross-over elpee, ‘Hard Station’, in terms of body shape and lyrical ambition.
And this set him absolutely apart on the regular ‘No Disco’ playlists, lost in the quarry of noisy, unhealthily-pale alternative guitar-pop – Smashing Pumpkins, Buffalo Tom, Breeders, The Auteurs, Rollerskate Skinny – and trippy dance vibes – Transglobal Underground, Portishead and De La Soul – that populated the Network 2 dead zone on Thursday nights. But then Donal has long been as comfortable in the company of Van Morrison, Neil Young and Lou Reed as he’s been with The Beastie Boys and Scary Eire and so we played the brooding video clip for ‘Shine’, and later the more upbeat trailer for ‘Wisdom’ – a song which, I am convinced, dictated the entire Turin Brakes design manual – off the air during the first six months of ‘No Disco’.
In the absence of any meaningful critical appraisal from our betters in Dublin – to RTÉ senior management, getting a regionally-located show to air without a full-on industrial dispute and then keeping it there for a while were the only barometers of success for ‘No Disco’ – we lived out our first couple of months in a state of absolute ignorance. Where, if we thought we were good – and I certainly needed no convincing about my own ability and probably compensated for Donal in this regard – then we definitely were. One day, messing with our heads and disturbing the sense of security we’d been lulled into, we received our first communication from the world outside: a letter from a viewer.
It’s not as if we didn’t court it. We consciously concluded every episode with a slide bearing our office address on the presumption that someone, anyone, might want to get in touch. Postal contact was, after all, how we’d both developed various relationships with our favourite groups and labels and, for years, the mailbag or the post office box number was a primary point of contact for all and any self-respecting independent-minded music endeavour. So why not ‘No Disco’ ?
It’s not as if we were talking about mountains of post, either : ‘No Disco’’s numbers never seriously troubled the compilers of what were then known as TAM ratings. We had a loyal, bespoke viewership and, like Spinal Tap during their ‘Jazz Odyssey’ phase, our audience was a selective one, pulling in, at its peak, between 40 and 70 thousand viewers every week. And our in-tray reflected that.
But there was a real, fanzine-style intent to much of the correspondence we received. We deliberately shied away from competitions for obvious reasons – we didn’t want, in our naiveté, the art to be polluted – and so instead of post-cards bearing answers, we’d regularly receive cassettes, requests and long, hand-written love-notes to some of the acts we’d feature. It was genuine, morale-boosting stuff, constant enough to make us sit up a bit and, the odd time, answer a letter or two and even pick up the phone and actually talk directly to the audience.
David Gray dominated practically all of those conversations and our viewers had taken to him, if not instantly – and personally I’ve found him a slow burn – then certainly after the first couple of months of on-air shelling. He had a small, undeclared bit of previous too: he’d been to Ireland six months earlier, travelling light to play a couple of live shows as a self-sufficient, acoustic guitar-slinger.
One of which had taken place five minutes away from our production offices on Father Mathew Street. Ally Ó Riada, who promoted that date in Nancy Spains, in Cork, told Ed Power for an Irish Examiner feature piece earlier this year that there were probably no more than twenty people there to see it.
It was a drastically different picture a year later, and just five months after ‘No Disco’ had come on air. Another of our number, Donal Scannell from Ballinasloe in County Galway, has long been a formidable weather vane, one eye perennially cocked on public mood, another on the starting point for his next scheme. And it was he who talked Virgin Records’ Dublin office – then manned by a core staff of two, one of whom subsequently played Rory in the television sit-com, ‘Mrs. Brown’s Boys’ – into bringing David back to Ireland to promote his second album, ‘Flesh’. That deal was sealed by the guarantee of a couple of television appearances and the potential to construct a decent publicity campaign around any state visit.
It was all scarcely believable stuff, really, and very much in line with a much of the general carry-on of the time. A couple of young pups and a niche, late-night music show making a case to the regional office of a major record label and presenting a marketing strategy on a plate to them for an act they didn’t really know where or how to place. And with no side or agenda either, beyond the fact that we just all liked a couple of records.
But it was still surprising to see the length of the queue forming from early outside of Whelan’s on Dublin’s Camden Street on Friday, February 4th, 1994. And no-one was more surprised than David Gray himself, who’d become accustomed to scanty turn-outs at his live shows up and down Britain. The blind support from ‘No Disco’ and, to be fair, a handful of others on the same page like Alan Corr at The RTÉ Guide and Brian Boyd at The Irish Times, had helped him to sell-out his first ever date.
And he didn’t have to wait long to repeat the dose: the following night in Cork, at what was then The Triskel Arts Centre, was also rammed. Myself and Donal ended up walking David back to The Imperial Hotel in Cork after that show and sat up long into the night with him in the resident’s bar on the ground floor. David and Donal are very similar – softly-spoken, soulful men who value simple things – and I spent the guts of that conversation, unusually for me, sitting back and sucking it all in, marvelling at the pair of them as they deconstructed on a grand scale.
But apart entirely from having seen David Gray play a couple of cracking sets, those dates brought ‘No Disco’ physically face-to-face with a small but fervent audience we presumed might have been out there but about which, beyond that, we knew nothing. Donal became an unlikely focal point and was pretty much bombarded by viewers and admirers that weekend, a disconcerting experience for someone so mild-mannered and shy. But on a far deeper level, that entire weekend suggested to us that, perhaps, we were being heard beyond the breeze-blocked walls of our improvised studio ?
It’s easy to see those early David Gray shows in Ireland – like the early days of ‘No Disco’ itself – through the cracked looking-glass of recent Irish music history. But during the Spring of 1994, there was certainly something on the boil, even if both David and the series were fundamentally still works in progress. In hindsight I’d suggest that ‘No Disco’ reached its peak and fulfilled its ambition far before David Gray did but that David’s influence on contemporary Irish music – and the possibilities inherent in it – has been considerably more far-reaching.
But should any of us have really been that surprised ? David, after all, was continuing a long-held national crush on the highly-charged, deep-thinking, male writer and performer – the one man/one voice/one storm model – from Luke Kelly to Christy Moore and Paul Brady. The year after ‘A Century Ends’, for instance, Moore played a mammoth series of live solo dates in what was then The Point Depot in Dublin, from which the most impactful moments were released as ‘Christy Moore Live At The Point’. That album, alongside ‘The Pope In Ireland’,  and U2’s ‘The Joshua Tree’ , is another of the biggest selling records in the history of the state.
One of the more interested and interesting on-lookers that night in Whelans in February, 1994, would have been Glen Hansard, then the lead singer and primary songwriter with Dublin guitar-band, The Frames. They’d released their Gil Norton-produced, Pixies-infused debut album, ‘Another Love Song’ in 1992 and, with their twin guitars, were one of the country’s most compelling and interesting live bands.
Having recently swapped labels, from Island to the Trevor Horn/Jill Sinclair/Paul Morley-dervived ZTT, and with his band having undergone a couple of key line-up changes, Hansard too was at a career impasse. His own story thereafter is as remarkable as any aspect of David Gray’s and, in part, maybe even moreso. But how much of it derives from what he saw and heard that night after David Gray announced himself in Dublin, and particularly the spirit in which he’d been enabled ?