Whatever about the balming and transcendent powers of music, maybe best felt in my own case by the magic of Prefab Sprout, Van Morrison and The Blue Nile, I owe a long-time debt to one Irish songwriter and musician who physically rescued me from the havoc and harm of the other side.
During the early 1990s, buoyed by the optimism of a new decade and a sense that I was maybe cruising a small bit, I threw caution to the wind and fetched up with a small, emerging Irish record label based in South East London. By hopping onto the sixteen -wheel articulated trailer that was Keith Cullen’s Setanta imprint, I could work with The Frank And Walters, who’d signed to the label and were making hay, dabble a bit in journalism and see some of the world’s most interesting destinations. Like the back room at The Bull And Gate in Kentish Town and a number of exotic spots around Camden where apparitions happened regularly.
I’d met Keith a couple of years previously as the label was finding its feet and after he’d released Beethoven’s ‘Him Goolie Goolie Man Dem’, Into Paradise’s ‘Blue Light’ E.P., ‘A Little Piece Of God’ by Power of Dreams’ and Rare’s ‘Set Me On Fire’. And, like many before and after me, was quickly dragged under by the formidable cut of his jib. Hewn from the best and worst of the unfiltered spirit of punk rock, he made a compelling argument for most things, but particularly for his roster. But even beyond that, it just seemed like the right thing to do: sacrificing the sanctuary of home in the name of quality music and all who were devoted to her.
The full, unabridged story of Setanta Records is another off of the wide canvas of contemporary Irish music – from Rory Gallagher to Boyzone to Ruby Horse via The Thrills – that has never been faithfully told and, in all likelihood, it never will. Keith was only able to keep Setanta going for so long because of an absolute lack of sentiment and an ability to move on quickly. ‘If you want a friend, get a goldfish’, he once told one of his acts. And so after the label was finally wound down a decade ago, that was always likely to be that: the supremo was never one for taking the podium and drawing undue attention on himself.
But notwithstanding the quality of the catalogue and the all-consuming vitality of the music, our leader saw this as just taking care of business in the moment, and nothing more. I just can’t imagine him ever looking into his heart before bedtime and asking himself what he could have done better. Regrets ? Nah.
And yet for at least fifteen years, Setanta was as valid an Irish music success story as U2’s onward march through the nations or Louis Walsh’s one-man revival of Irish cabaret. Even if, for far too long, the label was seen as a souped-up fanzine and struggled for a foothold outside of the niche. In the pre-digital era, many of its capers and achievements just went under-reported, and maybe thankfully so ? Part soap opera and absurdist theatre and frequently just a free-style street brawl, it’s a yarn that doesn’t want for colour, characters or a compelling story arc. In which Keith, with his out-sized personality, dominates every single scene.
The death earlier this year of the Dublin-born, Belfast-raised music writer, David Cavanagh, and the many eulogies and personal reminiscences that followed, reminded me once again of the raw impulse that characterized much of that decade from the mid-80s onwards. Cavanagh was one of the first onboard the Into Paradise wagon – they were Setanta’s breakthrough band – and remained an ally of both the group and the label until the end. He once joined them on tour and stayed on as part of the travelling number not because he was working on a commissioned piece but because he liked the racket they made and enjoyed the band’s company. And that, back then, was how some of us rolled: with no responsibilities to speak of, you bought in, signed up and blindly followed the path, irrespective of how treacherous it felt underfoot.
Setanta rarely suffered fools and although I can’t ever remember Keith demanding contracts be signed in blood, he had an instinctive sense of whether you were in or out. His mind worked at a different pace to most and he was relentless in his pursuit of the next scheme, the next band and the next song. History was what we were all doing tomorrow.
He also had a spectacular disdain for waste, squander and spoofers too, a result I suspect of his own previous. From the southside of Dublin, he jacked out of school early and lived on his wits in London, pounding the streets around the city for years as a teenage courier on a bicycle. And as tended to be the case with many of those who came of age in squats all over Britain during Margaret Thatcher’s dozen years as Prime Minister, nothing seemed to faze him, particularly authority. And certainly not the insanity that underpinned much what was then a fully-formed industry. Indeed for many years, Setanta Records was itself run on a day-to-day basis from a modified squat in Camberwell and, as a mission statement, that much succinctly captured the essence of the company’s values and how it saw itself.
And so every Tuesday lunchtime, after the weekly editorial meeting at Melody Maker magazine, where I was getting free-lance work, I’d scope the offices at King’s Reach Tower for recyclable Jiffy bags that I’d rescue from the bins and take back to Setanta in black refuse sacks. Where we’d then use them to post out various bits and pieces from a mail order catalogue we’d started. That’s how Setanta did its business: living on its wits for the most part because it had little else to fall back on.
One of the lesser known but certainly more interesting acts on the label during this time was Brian, initially a quietly reflective two-piece from Dublin whose soft, delicate touch was at odds with much of the sound of the rest of the imprint and who rarely get the credit they deserve. It was Jim Carroll – my long-time friend and a man with whom I’ve stood proudly for many years – who first introduced me to the band when, during one of our regular journeys from Cork to Dublin, he played me Brian’s second single, ‘You Don’t Want A Boyfriend’, on an old Walkman. During that same sitting he also played me an early version of Azure Days’ ‘Anything For You’ and, to this day, I can’t think of one of those songs without recalling the other.
Azure Days were a fine, well-upholstered guitar band from Carlow and, in their neat black denims and fresh leather jackets, represented the sound of the crowd. They’d won one of the early Hot Press-backed Band Of The Year competitions in Sir Henry’s some years previously and, led by Gala Hutton, certainly had many of the fundamentals in place. Like numerous others during that period, they sparkled briefly but never really had enough curve to convincingly stand apart from the slew.
Brian, on the other hand, sounded nothing at all like what was then the emerging sound of young Dublin. Ken Sweeney’s songs borrowed instead from the under-strength suburban balm of early Go-Betweens, the anxious, wafer-thin racket of Postcard Records and the more pastoral strokes of The Stars Of Heaven. Indeed ‘Boyfriend’, which was originally a b-side, barely had a pulse at all and very pointedly eschewed the big choruses and boisterous production that hallmarked much of the output of the time.
Neither did Ken do overt messaging, cheap puns or smart-alecy metaphors:: ‘Boyfriend’ is about a relationship that’s come to an end abruptly but with a sting in it’s telling. ‘Maybe you leaving, wasn’t a bad thing ?’, he ponders as he heads for the outro. And these lyrical pipe-bombs were part and parcel of Brian’s rolling stock where, much of the time, he could have been channeling psychological trauma. ‘I remember coming home, shaking for a very long time’, he sings at the top of ‘It Never Crossed Your Mind’, one of the many stand-outs on ‘Understand’, the outfit’s 1992 debut elpee.
This was the sort of thing that occupied our days down at Setanta. One of the more pleasurable aspects of life in the squat was the music itself and, in this respect, Keith gave me a considerable schooling. And although we had a cavalier attitude to food and eating, there was always a fresh cut on the sound system to sustain us. ‘Understand’ was the fourth album issued on the label and I couldn’t believe just how sharp and affecting it was when we first played it back: eight terrific, confessional songs, one better than the next, and all the more remarkable given that these were cut-price studio sketches, more or less.
Brian is/are seldom mentioned in the regular histories of Irish popular music. Indeed they’re rarely mentioned in the regular history of Setanta Records either even if ‘Understand’ and its follow-up, ‘Bring Trouble’  are easily among the most fetching albums on a label whose back catalogue also includes ‘Under The Water’ by Into Paradise, ‘I Am The Greatest’ by A House and ‘Promenade’ by The Divine Comedy. But then Ken had different objectives to every other act on the imprint and I never once got the impression that he was panning for gold. Instead, he had a series of public confessions to make via his work and that catharsis mattered far more to him than sales figures and mid-weeks.
And to this end he was an appalling salesman: in interviews he’d rather talk about the songs of Stephen Ryan, Paul Cleary, William Merriman and F.M. Cornog than he would his own. Which may have been an issue for the label’s supremo but which only attracted me even further to him and his work.
His signature dish was the first person vignette that placed familiar themes of love, loss, betrayal and fear into mundane local landscapes. Our nervy hero is routinely found in cars or on bus journeys and there are numerous references across Brian’s canon to various parts of West London – points along The Western Avenue or outside the sprawling Hoover factory in Perivale – where it’s almost always the dead of night and where the writer is perennially at odds with much of what surrounds him. But never more so than he is with himself.
And in that context, the use of such an unspectacular umbrella name might be explained away. Like Prefab Sprout and The Divine Comedy, both of whom were prominent in his orbit, Brian was ostensibly just Ken hiding under the blanket of a band handle by the time that ‘Understand’ saw the light of day. His original side-kick, Niall Austin, was back in Dublin and the main man was working instead with a handful of like-minded session musicians and producers like Ian Catt and Marcus Holdaway, who brought more shape than weight of numbers to the set-up.
But although one of the strongest cuts on ‘Understand’, ‘You Can’t Call Home’ might indeed have been cut from the same ash as ‘Anything For You’ by Azure Days – an irony that hasn’t been lost on me – that was as rowdy as Brian got, initially at least. ‘Understand’ is at its best when its at its most reserved, as shy and nervous as the young man standing in the hallway on its standout track, ‘A Million Miles’, one of Ken’s best ever songs. ‘Tonight when the whole world sleeps, my world will turn to you. A million miles away’, he sings, before a skeletal guitar solo takes us home.
I had almost exclusive access to Ken for a couple of months. I answered the land-line at Setanta to him one Saturday morning and, within hours, he’d rescued me from squalor and a pill-addled Scotsman in a squat on one of the high-rises in Peckham where the baths were located in the kitchens. Try as I did, I just couldn’t see the romance in that sort of carry-on and jumped at Ken’s kind offer to move onto a sofa in the front room of the terraced house he was sharing in West London. This was as far from the Setanta aesthetic as it was possible to get on at least two levels: comfort and distance.
The late Kirsty MacColl and her family were neighbours of ours on Avalon Road in Ealing where, playing to form, Ken and myself would sit up long and late into the night and work our way through our favourite records and writers. It was harmless but obsessive stuff as we deconstructed our red-raw love for Miracle Legion, REM, Into Paradise, The Go-Betweens and a curious Dublin outfit called Hinterland. Who, in the great atlas of Irish popular music, will one day share the same chapter as Brian.
Ken had served a short but colourful apprenticeship around the fringes of the Dublin mod scene in the early 1980s. Brian might or might not have been named after the erstwhile bass player in The Blades, a band who, if they didn’t overly influence his sound, certainly influenced many of the values he brought to bear on his writing. ‘I thought you only released music when you were feeling it’, he’s told me more than once over the years. And anyway, the band name story was a decent yarn that, in interviews, enabled Ken to wax lyrically about Paul and Lar Cleary, the Dublin brothers who founded and led the Ringsend mod combo.
We talked at length about Paul Cleary during the months I spent dossing on his floor and during which Ken was holding down an archivist’s job at the BBC. And on Sunday mornings we’d head down to Benjy’s, an Australian greasy spoon on Earl’s Court Road for a lavish fry-up called ‘The Builder’, before making our way onwards to Notting Hill and the racks of the second hand record and tape exchanges. Which we’d devour with the same vigour as we did those fried breakfasts, like cavemen hollowing out carcasses in search of rare slivers of fat. And it went on and it still goes on.
I came back to Ireland with Ken during the Autumn of 1992 to help him promote ‘Understand’, the magnificent four-tracker that followed it, ‘Planes’, and the Setanta brand generally, during which he performed a couple of acoustic numbers on RTE’s ‘Nighthawks’ programme and did a round of radio and newspaper interviews. And, while we were at it, saw another of our favourite bands, The Harvest Ministers, play a bizarre show in Mister Ripley’s in Dundalk, which I’ve previously recalled in a piece here.
Like an awful lot of what went down during that time, I remember our trip home in no little detail. Our mothers – exceptional women who both died in the past year – greeted us as you’d expect and treated us like prodigals during the few days we spent back in Dublin and Cork. And of course with every passing hour, the prospect of returning to England became more and more unappealing. Although I boarded the plane back to Stansted at the end of the week, I never really left Ireland again.
I tried hard and gave London a decent shot. I still have my numerous post codes, underground stops and bus routes etched into my brain decades later and refer to them instinctively whenever I’m back there. But from as far north as Bound’s Green and as far east as Forest Gate, I just couldn’t really settle: I did my best to lay my hat but someone always seemed to just want to sit on it and flatten it.
And I’m not sure that Ken ever re-settled there either. Because although ‘Understand’ was one of Setanta’s best-selling albums – big enough, in fact, for Virgin to later re-issue it – it took him an eternity to complete a follow-up. Having taken a redundancy package from the BBC in 1995, he re-located to Termonfeckin in County Louth and penned the songs that saw the light of day as ‘Bring Trouble’ four years later. That record, a far bulkier affair, captures a contented writer at play and, recorded at September Sound, the studio owned by The Cocteau Twins, features Simon Raymonde on one of it’s more circumspect cuts, ‘Light Years’.
Both ‘Bring Trouble’ and the ‘Planes’ E.P. are worthy of much more consideration and I’ll return to them in a specific piece down the line. Suffice to say for now that ‘Planes’, released in the immediate slipstream of ‘Understand’, was a terrific, souped-up four-tracker led by the rollicking ‘Knowing’ and also featuring the quiet but deadly ‘Planes Stacking Up’ and, in my view, one of Ken’s best ever songs, ‘She Takes You Away’. And on those tracks, the ground had fundamentally shifted: our hero was now returning to a warmer house, where an ashtray was still smoking, a pair of shoes had been discarded and the lights were still on. The air was ripe with promise: ‘Planes’ was shaped in the arc of some manner of an affair, imagined or otherwise.
Nearly thirty years on and Ken and myself are still in contact. It’s far more infrequent and way less intense these days but, like with many of those with whom I soldiered through the carnage, the music helps us to pick up the conversations easily enough. We have far more substantial matters to deal with now – families, work, anxiety and health – even if, invariably, our conversations inevitably lead back to Robert Forster, Stephen Ryan, Mark Mulcahy, Peter Buck or whoever happens to be taking the stage at a venue close-by.
Ken hasn’t released a record in twenty years although I’m happy to report that he’s as lost in music now as he was when Brian – and Setanta Records – were in their pomp. Proof of which can be heard on a number of terrific, award-winning radio documentaries he’s made for RTÉ Radio One over the last while. ‘Michael Jackson’s Irish Driver, ‘REM : Out Of Athens’ and ‘In Search Of The Blue Nile’ all spill over with the same unflinching passion that marked those late, lost nights and Sunday afternoons in London when we searched our souls as we devoured the bargain bins.
We both escaped the city but neither of us seem completely capable of hiding from the past we shared there. But sure, knowing what we know, would we really want to ?
Its worth noting that Ken’s radio documentaries have won awards at home and abroad. ‘Michael Jackson’s Irish Driver’ won a PPI Award and ‘REM : Out Of Athens’ took a gong at the New York Radio Festival and subsequently aired on BBC Radio 6. And deservedly so too …
What a lovely piece, Colm. It’s 1am in Sydney and I can’t sleep so I thought I’d check out the Sentinel. I’m glad I did.
Thanks v much, Pádraig. It has certainly been suggested previously that TBS is a reliable enough cure for insomnia … Hope you’re keeping well, otherwise. Colm