The Underground Bar on Dublin’s Dame Street was a lap dancing club the last time I passed it by but, in its pomp, the downstairs dive was a centre of excellence for some of the best new bands to emerge in Ireland from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. Sack, Power of Dreams and Into Paradise’s David Long were among the many notables to graduate from the bar during that period after sustained three and four-year courses aimed at potential high-achievers and talented youth. In the spirit of life-long learning, all of them have returned recently to the fray peddling terrific new material and performing that most rare of party tricks; they all sound as relevant and as fresh as they did when they first played at The Underground decades ago as callow, clean-shaven young men. And with the odd, honourable exception, most of those who tread the boards there – and the stage was indeed plywood board set on beer crates –were young men.
Whipping Boy, the noisy, Dublin/Kildare compound, were prominent too in that cohort, another of the distinguished honours class at the downstairs finishing school on Dame Street. The group will re-issue ‘Heartworm’, its exceptional 1995 album – replete with a full suite of whistles and bells – next month, and we’ll cover that record and its standing in a specific post then. But that project, overseen by Needle Mythology, the label founded by the writer and broadcaster Pete Paphides to pump air into great albums unavailable on vinyl, only reminds us again of The Underground’s powerful history and its unlikely contribution to popular music in modern Ireland.
Run by a father-and-son – Noel and Jeff Brennan – The Underground was at its peak between 1985 and 1990, during which it found itself at the crest of at least two distinct waves of quality new Irish music. The spirit of that first flush is captured on a six-track live album recorded in the bar over consecutive nights in September, 1985, ‘Live at The Underground’, that features early work-outs by Something Happens, The Stars of Heaven and A House and that hints at the shape – and sound – of things to come. As well as compiling three of the country’s best guitar bands at their most innocent on the one release, the self-funded, limited edition elpee also captures an important snapshot of live music in Dublin at grass-roots level during the first burst of post-U2 optimism.
I was an infrequent and nervy presence at The Underground from 1988 onwards, when I’d make the odd pilgrimage to Dublin on the train or the bus to sample the exotic sights I was reading about in Hot Press magazine, like Comet Records and The Virgin Megastore. With my co-pilot, Jim Carroll, I saw a second, more deviant strain of hope and optimism take hold on Dame Street towards the end of 1989, at the heart of which were the likes of Rex and Dino – who later morphed into a more robust concern, Blink – a ridiculously under-age Power of Dreams, Backwards Into Paradise and an early, Sonic Youth-fused Whipping Boy. On one memorable night we were among those caught in the frenzy as a band from Kingscourt, County Cavan – The Would-Bes – rammed the venue almost exclusively with representatives from record companies who had travelled over from Britain for the privilege. God knows what they made of the tiny performance area, Jeff’s Chad Valley sound system, Johnny the Dray Man and the radio-active toilets off to the side of the stage but no doubt they were all on decent expenses for their troubles. That show, if I remember correctly, ended with Jeff on the pavement outside trying to locate the band’s manager who, in the white heat of all-out carnage, had disappeared.
And that’s how The Underground rolled. Crass as it sounds, it was far more than just a bar that welcomed musicians, poets and performers; it doubled up as a drop-in centre for the perennially hopeless. Those who frequented the venue regularly recall it as a community outlet for indie oiks, aspiring writers and lonely anoraks, a place where love stories began – and frequently and spectacularly ended, often live on stage – and where music was variously a social adhesive, sedative and vaccine. In their part-time roles as social workers and agony uncles, Noel and Jeff collected a variety of waifs and strays over the years, ensured they were watered and fed and guaranteed them the warmth of a good hearth; I know this better than most because I myself was one of them. Suffice to say here that they pulled me out of a sewer when I was in need of a spare hand and their generosity and charity will never be forgotten.
But in any critical appraisal of the numerous fine musicians and writers and performers who found their sea-legs at The Underground, it’s vital to stay wary of the fog of nostalgia that often distorts these kinds of histories. Like every other decent working venue worth its salt, filling its calendar and taking risks, it hosted regular atrocities, spoken word performances and its fair share of live comedy, most of which was unintentional. And although Noel and Jeff were honest brokers who played with a straight bat, they never took themselves too seriously, unlike many of the over-earnest bands that fetched up on their manor. The Underground was a far better place for that and some of the performances that took place there were magical by any standards.
Which is why I still get an almighty kick from seeing someone like Long, for instance, defiantly doing it and refusing to let go. For someone so physically imposing – his head used to almost touch the ceiling from the stage at The Underground – he was defined by a trait common among many of the bar’s regulars; he would often cut a mildly disconcerted and aloof figure until such time that he strapped on a guitar, opened his mouth and came alive.
Based for years down in North Kerry, Long represents the pivot to self-sufficiency that has enabled many musicians and performers to take much more control over their own music and how its distributed. During the heady years at The Underground, it was access to the full heft of the professional recording process and to what was once known as ‘the music industry’ that pre-occupied many of those serving their apprenticeships, even if you’d rarely hear that mentioned too loudly. In the decades since, what was previously a complicated and costly process that was out of reach to most has been radically over-hauled and the industry on which it was based has been turned on its head, rendered increasingly obsolete by technology. Many of those old soldiers from The Underground now operate on the Internet, their residencies all on Facebook, where they’re connected not just to history, nostalgia and fan groups but to like-minds, enthusiasts and potential audiences flung far and wide. And where they can do, pretty much, whatever they want.
Donal Scannell’s recent documentary, ‘Ireland’s Greatest Hit’, about David Gray’s ‘White Ladder’ album, returned to 1996 and 1997 to school us one more time on this very point. [A declaration of interest here: I commissioned that documentary for RTÉ Television on the grounds that David Gray’s story was as much about the re-drawing of the popular media and entertainment industry as it was about the quality of his material or the more seductive aspects of his back-story]. The success of ‘White Ladder’ was remarkable and, as such, it set a precedent. In 1997, David Gray was a beaten docket who’d been dropped by two major record labels, at that point the only metric widely used to quantify, for musicians and music, the line between success and failure. But within three spectacular years he’d wrestled back control of his own career and became one of the biggest names in British popular music. The minutiae of this unfolding story wasn’t lost on the keen watchers of such events back at home who, deep in the detail, saw how a different tactical approach might pay off so handsomely.
As it happens, Donal has just completed a short promo clip for a new David Long and Shane O’Neill cut, ‘Dreams Come’. I’m in too deeply with all of those involved to be in any way neutral on these matters but, for what it’s worth, I mark ‘Dreams Come’ as this pair’s best work in decades. An up-lifting, end-of-summer pop song with real gliss, it is redolent of ‘Move Over’ by Into Paradise, that group’s most radio-friendly ever song and another that was lost in the recesses of popular music’s elaborate plumbing system. In keeping with one of the central themes in this piece, the video that accompanies the song was compiled from royalty-free archive that is freely available on-line and the entire process – from farm to fork – was completed over e-mail.
Over the last number of years, Long has been a prolific outputter, using the internet and PC-technology to write, record, publish and distribute a slew of new music that is as mixed in terms of its quality as it is in the stylistic ground it covers. But while the technology enables him more easily, and ultimately puts him under no real external pressure, there’s another important driver under-pinning all of this also; a sense of unfinished business. Long and O’Neill, like Sack, Power of Dreams, Brendan Tallon, Klubber Lang, Emperor of Ice Cream, The Knocking Shop and a host of other veterans clearly believe that song-writers and musicians don’t become any less talented because they were briefly deemed surplus to commercial requirement by the vagaries of an unstable industry thirty years ago. And why wouldn’t they?
The internet is the ultimate honey-trap for nostalgics and romantics, of course, and many’s the rabbit hole I’ve unwittingly fallen into over the last twenty-odd years having been sucked in by a seemingly innocuous, thirty-second YouTube clip of a heavily-lacquered deviant gobbing off on ‘Youngline’ in 1982. Indeed, much of the material on this very website has been conceived directly as a result of such encounters in the darkest and most dangerous corners of the on-line world. To this end, it should be noted that some of The Underground’s many side-shows, soap operas and robust exchanges have been captured by Whipping Boy’s guitarist, Paul Page, in a terrific blog post here that speaks from the dual perspectives of the pulpit outwards and the pews upwards.
The title of Paul’s essay is taken from a line in one of the standout songs on the ‘Heartworm’ elpee, ‘Personality’, a late-night score-settler in which the band namechecks a scarcely anonymised cast of local entertainment elites. A more modest cut of impresario features on ‘Underground Song’, one of the better tracks on David Long’s excellent 2019 elpee, ‘In Headphones’. Over a mid-paced acoustic drawl, Long reaches back into the mists of time to recall the 14A bus carrying him from South Dublin into Grafton Street – ‘a lonely boy, lost on his feet’ – and ultimately into more welcoming company downstairs on Dame Street, ‘waiting for Jeff to turn on the sound’.
‘I hope you’re out there, Fearghal McKee’, he signs off, before softly reprising a couple of lines from ‘Twinkle’, another of the mighty Whipping Boy songs from ‘Heartworm’. And we know, of course, that Fearghal is indeed still out there, somewhere. As are many of those distinguished others from that same set, some of them still pulling the plough and making the best music of their lives. Sometimes, the wheel turns awfully slowly. But the wheel turns.
Its probably fitting that ‘Heartworm’’s re-issue coincides loosely with the first anniversary of Noel Brennan’s passing; he died on September 25th last year. To those of us who entered his orbit, however fleetingly, he was always a decent, kind, funny and over-whelmingly charitable man. He was a passionate local historian whose interest in society and people ran deep and wide; he appeared to be consistently fascinated by some of the bands and the assorted hangers-on that regularly passed through both The Underground and then, subsequently, his restaurant, La Paloma, on Asdill’s Row. In any self-respecting history of Irish music, he is an important character whose contribution won’t be forgotten.
We’re aware that folk don’t often read the comments at the end of posts. Which is why we are adding one of the comments we received on this piece here. Thanks Fergal Bunbury…
Hey Colm, here’s a soundtrack to your piece. https://fbu62.bandcamp.com/track/55-dame-street-dublin-2
SHAKE SHAKE SHAKE.
And here’s the note that came with it;
Track 3. This is Not For You. 55 Dame St.D2
Back in the 1980’s, when the world and me were much younger than we are now, Dublin was both a damp and dreary city and a good place to go for a drink (it is no longer either of these things). Each pub had it’s own thing and you could have a pretty good night for less than twenty quid. Still, most people’s ambition on leaving school was to get the fuck out of here, what with all the unemployment and the heroin. The people who stayed would gather ’round any tiny light or spark to keep warm. Our light was The Underground Bar at 55 Dame Street, Dublin 2, run by Jeff Brennan and his da Noel. Every night, barely formed bands would strut their stuff. There were weeks when I saw 20 bands here. They weren’t all good but they got a chance to find that out or to find out that they were TOO good for this world. Jeff gave us our first gig, supporting Huey Purcell on a Wednesday night. We progressed to the weekend and some nights we were incandescent, barely contained within it’s walls, raw sound erupting on the street above. We would stay late and maybe head over to catch the last hour or so in SIDES and then walk home and start again tomorrow. Everyone says they were there but that’s not really possible. It was SMALL. The ‘Live at the Underground’ album is out there somewhere with a sleeve and labels I put together but it’s hard to get, so this song is for those who made it, for those who couldn’t make it or were too young to make it or weren’t born before it became a ‘Gentlemen’s Club’ and for Jeff and, especially, for Noel, RIP.