It was inevitable, I suppose, that so many of today’s tributes to Larry Gogan would eventually lead back to the rogue answers he was given for decades on ‘The Sixty Second Quiz’, one of the recurring features of his long-running radio career. In one respect, that quiz – routinely stuffed with as many bizarre questions as it elicited bizarre responses – embodied much of the host’s own on-air personality. The affable disc jockey and presenter, whose death was announced this morning, was forever warm, good natured, never overly serious and a welcome respite on the broader running orders. But it’s easy to be side-blinded.
For sure, Larry knew well that The Taj Mahal was a restaurant opposite The Dental Hospital and that Naomi Campbell was a bird with a long neck. But he was around long enough to know how essential that sort of knockabout codology was, particularly on live entertainment radio. Just as importantly, he also knew that Taj Mahal was a ground-breaking bluesman from Harlem and it was this kind of thing that stood him apart from the pack.
Ian Wilson, the recently retired radio producer and one-time 2FM main-stay, had his dukes poised nicely earlier today when he made a telling contribution about Gogan to the Morning Ireland programme on RTÉ Radio One. In pointing out the tendency of some to view those who play music, particularly on radio, as a sort of lesser species, he was aiming a decent body-shot at those – in broadcasting and in public life – who simply do not or cannot see the value in popular music. You’d be wary enough of that shower.
Larry Gogan saw that value, though. He was a genuine pioneer who can legitimately claim to have been there at the start, one of the first and best-known voices from the earliest days of popular music on Irish radio. Like one of his contemporaries, Gay Byrne, he was a link to the first wave of multi-discipline Irish broadcasting, a dual player who cut his teeth on sponsored radio programmes and then on the initial cluster of national entertainment television shows. During those years when Irish television amounted to a limited, single-channel service transmitting in monochrome and popular music on the wireless was an anomaly, Gogan was one of Irish broadcasting’s originals.
He was an early convert to rock ‘n’ roll, seduced into a life-long dream sequence by the magic of Elvis Presley and the raw promise of boogie and groove. Byrne, by comparison, was a jazz snob, a trained actor who, in popular musicians and popular music saw, with notable exceptions, unnecessary disruption. Even if, as the long-time presenter and producer of The Late Late Show, he knew well the audience-baiting capacity of a freaky young fella with a safety pin in his eyebrow and a few half-baked opinions about The Guards.
In Vincent Power’s fine history of Ireland’s showband years, ‘Send ‘Em Home Sweatin’’, first published in 1990, Byrne refers to the groups who dominated that period as ‘by and large, with a few exceptions, fairly indifferent musicians banging out their few chords’. ‘The music then on The Late Late Show’, he said, ‘was really an interruption of the talk’.
Gogan saw things very differently and, in his world, music always trumped chat. He was an enthusiastic and partisan advocate from the get-go and his unflinching support for the showbands was indicative of a career-long commitment to domestic music, especially new and emerging Irish music. ‘Without the showbands’, he claimed in an interview in 1965, ‘the pop scene in this country would today be dominated by British artists, like America. No artists – except perhaps the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Cliff Richard – can create anything like the stir our top showbands do in halls around the country’.
And he was well placed – and maybe compromised with it ? – in this respect. During the early 1960s, Larry Gogan presented fourteen different sponsored radio programmes a week, one of which was actually bank-rolled by a ballroom in Bundoran. He would routinely play relief or support sets for some of the showbands and, at one point, was as familiar an on-stage presence in the dancehalls as some of the bands themselves. Ultimately, he sounded like he just consistently got off on the music and just liked being around it.
No more so than when, on May 31st, 1979, Larry’s ‘Pop Around Ireland’ became the first show broadcast on the new Radio 2 [later 2FM] service. After an official address in front of a live studio audience by the then Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, Pádraig Faulkner, Larry took the mic at 12.37 and told his listeners how ‘we’ve been waiting for an all-day music radio station for a long time’ before, true to form, opening with a feisty number from an Irish band: ‘Like Clockwork’ by The Boomtown Rats.
Released a full year earlier as one of the singles from the group’s second elpee, ‘A Tonic For The Troops’, it was an unusual choice of song with which to christen a national radio station. All the more so given that one of the subsequent cuts lifted from that album, ‘Rat Trap’, had given The Boomtown Rats their first Number One single in Britain and was, arguably, the better known track.
But then Larry played consistently by his own rules, and so it went on for almost forty years, during which, on his impeccably pop-tastic playlists, you’d find all manner of emerging gold in among the hits of the day, the odd rare antique and the oldies-but-goodies. To this end, and as numerous musicians, pluggers and alickadoos have already attested, he made life much, much easier for those working in the local entertainment sector. And in that consistent championing, afforded a public service every bit as valuable and rich as that provided by news, current affairs, analysis and the gab that dominates much of the national radio schedules.
I saw this myself through the heft he consistently lent to a little known band from Churchtown, South Dublin, called Into Paradise, who battled manfully at the crease from 1988 until 1994 and released a series of fine records, to the sound of silence for the most part. In any other functioning democracy, Into Paradise would have neither been seen or heard before the witching hours. But in the band’s sweeping, six-minute cri de coeur, ‘Sleep’, Larry heard enough sparkle through the gloom to make him want to play it regularly on the national airwaves in the middle of the afternoon. Fifteen years after ‘Like Clockwork’ and he was still railing, forever politely but always pointedly, an observation made by several Irish musicians and activists since early morning.
Ultimately, like the television personality and band manager, Louis Walsh, and his own late colleague on 2FM, Tony Fenton, Larry Gogan knew what his strengths were, where his own weaknesses were and he made no pretentions to the contrary. He just consistently played the records instinctively assembled his play-lists and let the music do his persuading.
There’s a lesson in there somewhere.