On March 1st, 1980, the music writer Paul Morley fetched up in Cork on an assignment for the London-based music paper, New Musical Express. Accompanied by a young photographer, David Corio, Morley was on the road with an emerging group from Dublin, U2; his piece gave the band its first NME cover story when it was published three weeks later.
After an energetic Saturday night set at the UCC Downtown Kampus at The Arcadia Ballroom on The Lower Road, U2 sat down with Morley the following morning at The Country Club Hotel in Montenotte, where they were billeted. That interview formed the spine of the eventual NME piece. Corio later shot a series of posed group shots on the roof of the hotel that featured the industrial scope of Cork’s wide-mouthed port far off in the distance behind the band. One of the shots from that session adorns the front cover of U2 by U2, the band’s authored photo book, which was published in 2006.
U2 and their entourage then left Cork in convoy for the band’s next assignment: a support slot at The Garden of Eden nightclub in Tullamore, County Offaly, to Tony Stevens, a popular Cork-based crooner. Stevens, whose actual name is Tony Murphy, was a former welder who’d carved out a reasonable career for himself while the tail-end of the showband era was dove-tailing with the dawn of cabaret. Nightclubs, discotheques and hotel bars had become staples of the Irish entertainment scene during the early 1970s and, in drastically changing the shape of the country’s leisure sector, rendered the dancehalls all but redundant. Committed to playing wherever, whenever and with whoever they could, this was the broader context against which U2 were seeking to make a great leap forward. From The Arcadia – one of the most profitable ballrooms in Ireland during the height of the showband years – to The Garden of Eden, a carpeted discotheque in the midlands whose licence meant it couldn’t serve booze on Sundays.
Even at a remove of forty years, Morley’s U2 piece for the NME is fascinating. Referring to Bono as Paul Houston and Tullamore as ‘Tullymeney’, he takes a number of wild swipes at Tony Stevens and his band – as well as those who had come to see them – and he places U2 in a critical binary with the showbands. ‘Already big in Ireland, but frustrated by the apathy of its rural ballroom circuit, U2 have to decide whether to jump from stardom in their homeland or obscurity in Britain’, ran the sub-header.
Morley was replicating a familiar and well-worn mantra, also used liberally by the likes of Bob Geldof, Philip Lynott and Niall Stokes, one of the founders of Hot Press magazine, which was launched in Dublin in 1977. The showbands were an easy and an obvious target, the kind on which all counter-cultures thrive. But there’s an absolute pointlessness to the comparison of apples with sausages in order to stand-up an under-cooked critical analysis. The reality, of course, is that the showbands have made as important a contribution to modern Irish society as U2, and perhaps even more. It’s just that the music they played, and the records they released, had little, if anything, to do with the considerable impact they had. In actual fact, the music of the Irish showband period should be de-coupled entirely from any considered interrogation of them.
Rather, the showbands were travelling juke-boxes during a period in which Irish society was still largely immobile. In tandem with the formidable commercial clout of the cinema, they dominated the Irish leisure space for fifteen years and, at the peak of their powers, were at the heart of an industry that employed 10,000 people, nearly half of whom were musicians and performers. Tribute acts in all but name, they traded in soft pastiche and released a slew of poorly recorded, half-hearted material – cover versions, invariably, although not exclusively – often as just promotional and marketing tools for their relentless live performances. And yet the showbands exerted an impact on Irish society that went way beyond their music; they enabled the physical communion of young men and women in towns and villages all over Ireland. During a period in which arguably the single biggest influence on Irish popular culture was Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin, the showbands facilitated the swapping – through large-scale congregation – of news, gossip, opinions, ideas, sweat and, presumably, saliva.
They were Ireland’s first home-grown popular music elites and, outwardly at least, presented as clean-cut and virtuous. Their story has long been compromised by omerta and by the over-simplistic monochrome in which this period in modern Irish history has been presented. Although it should be said that various first-person testimonials to that archive by the likes of Gerry Anderson of The Chessmen, Derek Dean of The Freshmen and Eileen Reid of the Cadets – alongside the forensic academic work of Carole Holohan, Eleanor O’Leary and Daragh O’Halloran – suggest that the showband period in Ireland was far more interesting and complicated than the one-eyed ramblings of the likes of Paddy Cole and Father Brian D’Arcy have long led us to believe.
Seán Lucey, who died last week, was the founder and spiritual leader of The Dixies, the Cork showband who became one of the biggest draws on that circuit, and he would have known exactly how interesting and complicated the showband period was. Like my father – who was a contemporary of his – and myself, Lucey was a past-pupil of The North Monastery, the Christian Brothers-run school on the northside of the city. So too were his long-time band-mates in The Dixies, Theo Cahill, Joe McCarthy and Steve Lynch. But it’s not as if myself and my classmates would have known as much were it not for our parents; for a school that rightly prides itself on the remarkable achievements of its former students, The Dixies ‘influence on Irish society went unheralded there during the years we spent on Our Lady’s Mount in the 1970s and 1980s. A reflection of how, for decades, the school paid scant respect to those who opted for crotchets and quavers over books and balls but also, perhaps, an indication of how the showbands have been so consistently mis-represented in broader Irish society. I’ve previously written at length about this in pieces here and here.
The Dixies were young men from unremarkable backgrounds on the northside of Cork who did remarkable and scarcely believable things during an era that pre-dates mass media and instant messaging. In their own way they are as important to the history of the school – and Cork city – as Jack Lynch, Niall Toibín, Seán Óg and any one of a number of distinguished public figures, academics, scholars, surgeons, hurlers, athletes and civil servants whose careers are celebrated in framed photographs along the long walls up in The Mon.
Like most of those who toiled on the showband circuit, The Dixies were fine musicians, often deceptively so; Lucey was a clarinet player who first mastered his instrument as a member of the Butter Exchange Band. He formed The Dixielanders with McCarthy and Cahill in 1954 and the trio initially plied its trade as a jazz outfit, playing regular sets around the province. It was only after Brendan O’Brien joined them in 1961 – first of all as a guitarist – that The Dixies’ showband sound evolved and the group’s long-time and best-known line-up, now also featuring Steve Lynch and Chris O’Mahony, took shape. Before turning professional and moving full-time onto the dancehall circuit, Seán Lucey, appropriately enough, was earning a crust as a radio repair man, this at a time when the only popular music heard regularly in Ireland was on international long-wave signals, most notably via Radio Luxembourg.
It was under the media-savvy management of Peter Prendergast, the owner of The Arcadia Ballroom on Cork’s Lower Road, that The Dixies first took flight. Faithfully re-cycling the popular hits du jour, and with a free-form floor-show aspect coursing through their live performances, they quickly became one of the most distinctive and successful showbands in the country. Vincent Power, whose 1990 book about Ireland’s showband years, ‘Send ‘Em Home Sweatin’, is still the definitive history of that movement, refers to them as ‘Kings of The Arcadia’; their home-town shows would regularly attract 4,000 paying punters.
The Dixies are probably best remembered for ‘Little Arrows’ which, written by Albert Hammond and Mike Hazelwood, was originally a 1968 hit for Leapy Lee, before it was re-purposed with local inflections for domestic audiences. They enjoyed a string of hit singles in Ireland, routinely ramming halls all over the country on a nightly basis for the guts of six or seven years. But one can realistically argue that The Dixies’ greatest achievements all happened far from home. Like The Royal Showband from Waterford, they completed several tours of duty in America, where they were promoted by the formidable figure of Bill Fuller, the Lixnaw-born speculator whose own life and career is itself worthy of a Netflix multi-parter. Bookings in Las Vegas during those tours brought them into an orbit alongside Perry Como, Jimmy Durante and Jack Benny. Indeed after the band returned from an appearance at Carnegie Hall in New York City in 1964, they were greeted by a huge crowd at Kent Station before being ferried through the city on an open-top bus.
In hindsight, the group was in its pomp from 1963 until 1970, after which McCarthy and Brendan O’Brien, in keeping with one of the trends of the time, jumped ship and formed a break-away unit, Stage 2. Like many of the elite showband names from the 1960s, The Dixies re-formed in numerous iterations and at several junctions in the decades that followed, by which time the transition of Irish society, enabled by the growth of media and the development of technology, had left the glory nights in the ballrooms well and truly in its wake. But for those seven glorious years they were unstoppable.
Joe McCarthy has routinely described The Dixies as ‘a band of brothers’, understandable enough given how the core of the group enjoyed a relationship that extended back to the 1940s and spent so much time in one another’s pockets. But that bond was cemented far away from the dancehalls, the customised vans, the stylish suits and that series of scarcely-believable deeds at home and abroad; for all their good humour and perennial bonhomie, The Dixies’ story is also one of profound personal tragedy. The late Brendan O’Brien’s story is especially heart-breaking; after he was electrocuted on stage in The Stardust on The Grand Parade in 1974, he lapsed into alcoholism and, at one point, spent a fortnight in jail in Cork for non-payment of traffic fines. I briefly came across Brendan in the late 1980s when he managed a band from Midleton, Nothing Like Strauss and, even at that point in his life, he cut a decent, personable but struggling figure. Seán Lucey was pre-deceased by a son, James, who was killed at the age of eighteen in June 1981, in a road accident in Crosshaven. Months later, Joe McCarthy’s son, Aidan, and his daughter-in-law, Linda, were also killed on the roads. And still The Dixies, in the great showbiz tradition in which they were formed –and that formed them – somehow kept the show on the road, infrequently released the odd album and toured when it suited them. I’m not sure if, instinctively, they ever knew any other way.
Last week, as part of a tribute in The Evening Echo, the radio presenter, Elmarie Mawe referred to Seán Lucey as ‘the pool table man’, and remembered him coming to the holiday resort in Garrettstown ‘with the pool tables and video games’. During the late 1970s he started a business with Brendan O’Brien that provided games and equipment to amusement arcades all over Cork, operating from a small office on John Street.
And so you’d see Seán the odd time around town during the 1980s, maybe a bit more frequently if you were mis-spending your youth in the city’s dens. Joe Mac was always more visible – and certainly more audible – in and around his coffee shop, which he opened in The Queen’s Old Castle after it was re-built in the early 1980s. And Theo Cahill could be often located on South Main Street, where his wife ran a jewellers shop. My own parents, who grew up with the group as part of that incredible generation on the northside, were always keen to point them out and constantly reminded us, not just of their various achievements but, as importantly, the many ways in which they brought honour to Cork, the home of The Dixies.
They may never have shaken the world but, alongside The Royal, The Miami and The Drifters, they certainly shook the foundations in halls all over Ireland, from Ballineen to Ballybofey, at a time when it was never more important or urgent. For that, if nothing else, The Dixies – and their long-time heart-beat, Seán Lucey – need to be rightly remembered for the giants they were.