After the premature death of Dolores O’Riordan in London last January, many of the reflective pieces written in the immediate aftermath – the one posted here included – referenced the scarcely believable formative days of the band she led, The Cranberries, and the terrific local scene in Limerick from which they emerged during the first flushes of the 1990s. It’s a well-worn story by now and, like many other yarns from Irish history, is prone to hi-jacking. But the band’s developmental phase – was it weeks, was it months, was it never ? – when they traded as The Cranberry Saw Us, inevitably traces back to another band, The Hitchers. And, specifically, to that group’s long-time mainstay and heartbeat, Niall Quinn.
In keeping with the spirit of the time, and Niall’s finely-honed indie smarts, he briefly had a foot in both camps. And it’ll be forever recorded that, for better or worse, he was the lead singer in the band that eventually became The Cranberries, before he left to lend his considerable song-writing heft to The Hitchers instead. Even in the most basic telling of that story, its easy to be side-blinded by the obvious and to cast our hero as a local unfortunate whose Lotto numbers came through just as his dog was eating his dream ticket. But that does scant justice to The Hitchers who, on their own steam, are as important players in the history of popular music in Limerick as any, and moreso than probably most.
Last week, off the back of a fresh chapter in the band’s long alliance with the writer, broadcaster and indie enthusiast, Steve Lamacq, they dusted themselves down and re-assembled for another short tour of some of Ireland’s better live music venues. And why not ?
Those who’ve ever dabbled in music, and who ever aspired to completing an original composition or mounting, even once, a live stage somewhere, will understand those visceral impulses better than most. Fundamentally, the creation of noise with a group of friends and like-minds is just great fun even if, once music manhandles you onto the merry-go-round, it can be impossible to stop the lights and get off.
The recent release of ‘Steve Lamacq’s Lost 90s’, a double album featuring one of The Hitchers’ signature cuts, ‘Strachan’, alongside tracks from Ride, Teenage Fanclub, Travis and the myriad of moderately left-field groups long associated with the one-time fanzine editor and BBC Radio mainstay, has nudged the band back to life, however briefly, and notwithstanding how match fit they might actually be. I doff my hat to them either way.
I first encountered the band on a Saturday afternoon in 1989, on-stage in the musty theatre of an old school on one of Limerick city’s main drags. They were half way up a forgettable bill at one of the heats of a nationwide school band competition run by the Cork promoter and musician, Denis Desmond – not to be confused with etc – and to whom, in a moment of extreme weakness, I’d offered to help out with the assessments and judging.
Denis shares a handle, perhaps unfortunately and maybe ultimately not, with the now global showrunner who’s basically owned live music in Ireland for the guts of thirty years now and from whom, name apart, he couldn’t be further removed. And so while one of them was in the court of Michael Lowry and planning the first Trip To Tipp – the live Féile event that ran for a number of years in Semple Stadium and that, one could realistically argue, elevated him into the ranks of serious competition – the other was manfully working the school circuit as part of a perennial search for emerging talent.
And who, with a dedicated band of helpers – the unflappable live soundmen, Tony Healy and Mick Finnegan, and my late friend, Philip Kennedy, among them – spent his days organizing get-in times for moderately creative and often mannerless school-goers. Most of whom were struggling with basic scale-work and a handful of whom grasped the concept of tuning.
The Hitchers were imperious in such company, clearly playing way beyond their own age group ;– barely out of the nursery and already on the fringes of a minor panel, ear-marked from early as likely inter-county material. And as can often be the case with the prodigious ones, they were cocky enough with it too even if, for the most part, their savvy pop-songs were in line with the breadth of their self-confidence.
That first iteration was a five-piece one led, from the front, by a long-haired singer, Eoin O’Kelly, who’d often take the stage in bare-feet and who, on a clear day, looked like Neil, the drippy hippy played by Nigel Planer in the 1980s Channel 4 sit-com, The Young Ones. And powered from behind the traps by Niall himself who, from my reading of it, clearly determined the whole operation, even if the writing credits, at that stage, were shared around the band. Whose number was completed by guitarists Andy and Benny – more Bonehead and Noel than Gorham and Robertson – and the fancifully-fringed bassist, Hoss Carney, who gave their sharp, slightly left-leaning pop songs real clout.
Compounding their instinctive pop savvy with the back-bar wit of Half Man, Half Biscuit and any one of a number of indie-skewing regulars, its safe to say that, even as callow teenagers, The Hitchers made a terrific racket.
And Limerick was the place for it, too. Ten odd years previously, a young Dublin band called The Hype were well down the road to transition when, on March 18th, 1978, they claimed the laurels at ‘Pop 78’, a now legendary talent contest sponsored by Harp Lager and The Evening Press and run at Limerick’s Stella Ballroom as part of that year’s Civic Week. Arriving in what many believe to have been bass-player Adam’s father’s swish motor as boys, The Hype departed back the road to Dublin as men. Or, as some of you may know them now, U2.
The Hitchers would have been as aware of that story as they would have been of the terminal lack of cool that accompanied competitions for bands and talent shows generally. But a decade removed, they were part of an emerging generation that was much more self-sufficient and far less dependent on the more traditional mechanics of the industry. Alongside the likes of A Touch of Oliver, Those Stilted Boys and They Do It With Mirrors, they were part of a fledgling set that evolved, to a considerable degree, around Pearse Gilmore’s studio and rehearsal facility at Xeric, out towards the railway station end of Limerick city. They saw that school band competition as an opportunity to win free recording time, appear on television and get a single out on the cheap, and as no more than that.
Beyond the puns, the word-plays and the on-stage tomfoolery was a hard edge, a strong grasp of the basics and a real sense of what they might achieve, and it was just folly to under-estimate them. ‘Alice Is Here’ [which appeared on a Xeric compilation album, ‘The Reindeer Age’], ‘Blame It On His Hormones’, ‘[There’s A Bomb In That Basket Of] Fruit’ and ‘Which Leg Of A Chicken Is More Tender’ might not have unduly troubled long-time Prefab Sprout or Steely Dan collectors but, beyond the titles were fine, abrasive pop songs that suggested genuine potential.
From my reserved seat in that empty school theatre – a metaphor for much of my own life – I knew I’d seen the victors. The Hitchers were a formidable outfit and I saw nothing else in that competition, the heats of which went on for an eternity, that laid a glove on them. And so it was no surprise when, the following Easter, at the conclusion of the Coca Cola-sponsored final, held in Connolly Hall in Cork, they took the spoils back down the N20.
And I don’t think it did the band any harm, either, even if it eventually took them five or six years to realistically find their feet. That scene from which they took root was clearly a pretty exceptional one and I stand over my long-held view that not only were the nascent Cranberries not the best young band in Ireland, they were far from the best young band in Limerick too. Its just that they found their way quicker and enjoyed more good fortune than some of the others. And of course Dolores gave them the luster, and the story, that cut them apart from the pack.
The world had changed irrevocably by the time that The Hitchers released their debut album, ‘Its All Fun And Games Until Someone Loses An Eye’ on their own Murgatroid label in 1997. The Cranberries had bolted from the pack, were now an established international juggernaut and, already three albums into a career on a major label, had lapped the domestic competition long-since. And although a couple of their peers, A Touch Of Oliver and They Do It With Mirrors also sparkled briefly on the fringes and, for a while, kept the runaway leaders in their sights, The Hitchers had pulled up at the back of the field to re-fuel.
Eoin O’Kelly had moved to Cork to study philosophy and I’d meet him from time to time around the middle of town, where he’d up-date me on the band’s adventures. Or not, as the case often seemed to be. And then he was gone, a victim of the vagaries of real life – education, travel, personal ambition – and with Benny also gone overboard, the remainers took to the gym.
Andy and Niall took on vocal duties between them and ‘It’s All Fun And Games’, when it eventually saw the light of day, was very obviously buffed up and bulked out, even if the band’s core values were still intact. Crisp and wry, it dripped with spirit and smart writing that pulled variously from The Undertones, Buzzcocks and later period Sultans. And, unusually for an Irish release during this period, was singularly devoid of earnestness.
A lot of water had passed beneath Sarsfield Bridge in the years since The Hitchers and myself first got it on. But the release of that fine album, buttressed by the likes of ‘Killed It With My Bare Hands’ and ‘Strachan’ – ‘and then the greatest midfield artist of them all walked out onto the park’ – enabled us to re-engage the scrum, and I was only too glad to return to Limerick with a small RTÉ crew to capture the steady pace of the pilgrims’ journey.
I’d been busy enough myself, too. In the years since, I’d graduated from the edges of the late-night Network 2 television schedules via ‘No Disco’ to the fringes of the childrens and youths schedule, for which the late Kevin Linehan asked me to devise a music series for kids and teenagers. ‘Popscene’, presented by Suzanne Duffy, Pearse Lehane and Roisin Saxe, is rarely mentioned in the long and often bizarre history of RTÉ music television output – understandably so on one level, given its target audience was 8 to 15 year-olds – but its easily one of the best and most invigorating strands I’ve been across in the twenty-five years I’ve now spent at the national broadcaster. By anyone’s measure, we did good work on that show.
And so, buried somewhere in the archives, is a five minute report from Pearse, shot by my long-time wingman, Aidan McGuinness, about The Hitchers and their debut album, that was first broadcast on February 6th, 1998. Of course I needed no nudging to go back to Limerick either, and remember well a terrific day we spent with Niall in a couple of locations relevant to him. The studios at Xeric and the battered old stand at the decrepit ground at Rathbane, then the home to his local football team, Limerick FC – who were challenging for promotion from The League Of Ireland’s First Division – among them.
And after which we repaired to Xeric to record multiple takes of ‘You Can Only Love Someone So Much [But You Can Hate Them All The Way To Hell]’ – the one where the title of the song contains all of the lyrics in it – which bed-rocked the Popscene report and was subsequently completed as a stand-alone video for the band.
I haven’t seen Niall or any of the original band members since we went on that walkabout in Limerick twenty years ago, although the internet allows us to loosely track each other’s movements and, if not physically stay in touch, at least enables us to graph how well our children are performing at their sports or to see what we all got up to during the last mid-term break.
And it’s forever re-assuring to know that, like a host of others from way back, they’re all still out there, hale and healthy enough to stay at it whenever the mood takes them, and that Niall is still belting the biscuit tins like a demented caveman might hollow out a carcass. And that, when you re-open The Hitchers’ case-book and dust down the music, it still resonates enough to keep you down the rabbit hole for days.
I’ll forever be of the view too that, for whatever reason, they never fully enjoyed the credit they deserved or that their music warranted. Even if all of us are of an age now when absolutely none of that matters anymore.
Old soldiers, that’s what we are.