WHIPPING BOY: HEARTWORM

I was flattered and a little awed when I was asked to contribute a few words to accompany the re-issue of Whipping Boy’s magnificent 1995 album, ‘Heartworm’. I never intended the sleeve notes to take off like they did and I’m not sure if the band or the staff at Needle Mythology, the record label behind the release, expected something so long. But I hope that the liner notes that adorn the re-issue – and which we’ve re-produced with permission here – might help listeners to understand both the band and the record a little more. That’s the only objective.

Heartworm disease, commonly found in domestic pets, is caused by penetration of the vital organs, often the heart, by clusters of out-sized pests. That Dublin band Whipping Boy chose to load even the title of their magnificent second album with such symbolism is typical of them, but the album nods also to another more distinctly Irish affliction: Heartworm for all its ambition and grandeur, is as sick as a dog. 

Themes of breakdown and cruelty – psychiatric, physical and emotional – punctuate it, often at variance with the wide-screen orchestral soundscapes on which they sit. Heartworm is a record as extreme as some of the behaviours and moods it details. Its ten frequently brutal confessionals are speckled throughout with local references that bring its wider themes home – regularly breaching the front door, uninvited. It’s one of the finest albums, and easily the most unsettling in the grand history of Irish popular music.

Whipping Boy was a group consistently surrounded by a whiff of cordite. They ran the wicket of extremes spectacularly well: they were either the last great gang in town or a band about to implode. It was this tension that defined many of their exhilarating live shows, where anything could happen and frequently did, usually at the instigation of the band’s vocalist, Fearghal McKee, playing the twin role of singer and method actor. One of the most basic challenges facing them in the making of Heartworm, then, was an obvious one: how to most effectively capture that sense of menace onto tape while under the watchful eye of a major record company.

The second of Whipping Boy’s three LPs, and the band’s first and only for Sony/Columbia, begins politely enough: the opening bars of violin over strummed guitar hint at The Velvet Underground, one of the band’s primary influences, before Fearghal comes to the crease and marks his territory. ‘Twinkle’, the subject of that opening cut, is the author’s lover, a real or an imagined prostitute who, following in the family tradition, turns tricks just like her mother. From there, it’s an unrelenting unburdening of first-person testimony, within which the abuse and humiliation of women strikes the most disconcerting notes. Thirty-odd minutes later, the impact of a dysfunctional relationship with a mother is manifest and the author concludes Heartworm by pondering the futility of parenthood. ‘I too have distrust too much’, he reveals. ‘That’s why I don’t want children’. Little wonder that Whipping Boy were long deemed to be cut apart from the pack.

For a band so founded on the busy hands and nimble feet of its terrific rhythm section – drummer Colm Hassett and bass player Myles McDonnell – it’s ironic that Whipping Boy were so perennially out of time, and never more so than during the Autumn of 1995 when Heartworm was first released. In Britain, an obvious market for Whipping Boy, Blur and Oasis were in their commercial pomp and their exploits had even started to infiltrate the country’s news agenda. At home, Ireland’s biggest live draws were Boyzone, a pasty boy-band crudely cut in the likeness of Take That, and Riverdance, a highly-camp traditional Irish dance revue aimed at tourists. While down in the lower leagues, the days of indiscriminate spending by major labels on emerging Irish groups were drawing to a close. From the mid-1980s onward, Dublin, once billed fancifully as ‘the city of a thousand rock bands’, was bled dry in a hugely expensive search for the crumbs from U2’s table.

After a goal by Ray Houghton helped us to see off Italy at the 1994 World Cup finals in America, Ireland inhaled its fill of helium and briefly looked down on all creation. As the writer Declan Lynch says: ‘We were kings of the world … we just didn’t realise it’.

It was around the shallows of this unexpected national up-swing that Whipping Boy were loitering. They’d released a fine debut album, Submarine, on a local indie, Liquid Records, and a series of unlikely associations were leading them into uncharted territory. Like the getaway in Bono’s west of Ireland holiday home. The port-hole shaped window in Bono’s eyeline in the U2 singer’s bathroom informed one of the grabbiest lines on Heartworm, but that period in Whipping Boy’s career – ‘Solid days and Liquid nights’ – only really under-lined the band’s discomfort at altitude. ‘You are what you own in this land’, Fearghal sings on ‘We Don’t Need Nobody Else’. ‘You can be King and it all depends on the view and what you can see’. But when Whipping Boy looked out from their flats on the other side of Dublin, they would have seen a different landscape entirely, more dirty boulevard than unhindered sea-view.

It was in less salubrious surroundings that Whipping Boy first served notice of their intentions. ‘All our lives spent underground’, Fearghal sings on ‘Personality’, a reference to the cramped, downstairs venue in which Whipping Boy played some of their earliest sets. The Underground’s status may have been distorted over time by the cracked looking glass of nostalgia but, for several years, the small dive bar on Dublin’s Dame Street provided welcome respite from the notions that swept Ireland’s entertainment circles after the release of The Joshua Tree. Run throughout the 1980s by Noel and Jeff Brennan, the fun-sized operation – as much a drop-in centre for the hopeless and needy as a music venue and bar – doesn’t exist anymore. Several years ago, The Underground, which also hosted formative sets by The Stars of Heaven, A House, Power of Dreams and Into Paradise, was replaced by a lap dancing club and sex shop, and the moral of that story won’t have been lost on Whipping Boy.

I’d argue strongly that even long-time band-watchers and confidantes were taken aback by Whipping Boy’s spectacular gear-change once they’d moved on from Submarine. Within eighteen months, early versions of ‘We Don’t Need Nobody Else’, ‘Twinkle’, ‘Blinded’ and ‘Fiction’ [in its original guise, ‘I Am God’] were the talk of the trade and made Whipping Boy the most lusted-after date in town. It was if they’d just opted to purge their entire history in order to start again from scratch in a small rehearsal space on the northside of the city centre from where they could gaze out across decay.

It was in that room on Parnell Square, in one of the most run-down parts of the north inner-city, that Heartworm first took shape, but it was in a far more imposing set-up, ten minutes’ walk away, that it took flight. The album was recorded during the Autumn of 1994 in Windmill Lane Studios, located on the edge of the city’s dockland and in a part of town that had been long neglected, used regularly by socially-minded writers and journalists as a symbol of the poverty that under-pins much of Ireland’s modern history. It seems quaintly symbolic now that, as Whipping Boy were setting up home in Windmill, the first phases of a wide-ranging renewal plan to re-generate the entire area were underway. Today, Dublin’s quays are a sea of foreign direct investment, grand architectural design and global financial clout.

Despite several high-profile production credits to his name, it was Warne Livesey’s bench-work on The The’s Mind Bomb and Julian Cope’s Saint Julian that, I suspect, first brought him to Whipping Boy’s attention. They’d have noted, in particular, how he’d captured Matt Johnson’s vocals – and then so skillfully placed them – on both Mind Bomb and its predecessor, Infected. Once the Londoner had completed the first pre-production sessions on Heartworm, it was clear that himself and Whipping Boy were on the one page: the marriage settled quickly and word soon seeped out that the one-time noiseniks were going full-scale, all-out, 48-track cinemascope.

Heartworm’s sound reaches as deep and wide as its words. Between the imposing over-lay of guitars, the scope of its many orchestral passages and the multi-tracking of vocals, it’s a record of real expanse. Not a single channel or guitar line is wasted and, by any standards, Whipping Boy are unrecognisable from the indie-kids who originally knocked out under-nourished Sonic Youth pastiche. In fact, by the time they reach the closing cut, ‘Morning Rise’, they hit a highly-decorative, Beatles-style string flourish that says much, not just about how they’d developed their frame of reference but, rather, how confident they’d become about using it.

That frame extends in multiple directions and the series of clues buried on the lyric sheet – again, intentionally or not – is interesting: the album alludes to a variety of other songs, from The Hollies’ ‘All I Need’ to Sinatra’s ‘Songs For Swinging Lovers’ via The Pogues’ ‘Streams of Whiskey’ and The Smiths’ ‘Pretty Girls Make Graves’. It’s to a formidable local presence, however, that Whipping Boy salute on one of Heartworm’s stand-outs, ‘When We Were Young’, which borrows from Philip Lynott’s ‘Shades Of A Blue Orphanage’, the title track on Thin Lizzy’s second album, released in 1972.

‘When We Were Young’ lists a series of teenage rambles by the various band members during the early 1980s, one of which led to an admonishment in the district court. Like Lynott’s original, it presents the clumsy innocence and gormlessness of youth using a series of colloquial references. What binds both songs ultimately, though, is a far darker edge: time waits for no-one and the past – another theme that haunts Heartworm – eventually catches up with its owners.

‘Shades of A Blue Orphanage’ also pulses another of the album’s most striking numbers, ‘Personality’. Lynott’s smokey ballad refers to a couple of landmark Dublin cinemas, The Roxy and The Stella, and some of the popular stars of American westerns who lit up the screens there during the early 1960s. On ‘Personality’, Whipping Boy find themselves in the company of a different calibre of cowboy – Dublin’s entertainment industry elite – and who might have previously dared to impede their progress. Set late at night in another well-known Dublin venue, J.J. Smyths, a former bar on Camden Street, the song begins with a reference to Koo Stark, an American actress who first came to prominence following a relationship with Prince Andrew. It quickly descends into an out-and-out scorching of Ireland’s own royalty, at the end of which a barely anonymised cast – Mister Field, Longman Oz, Redboy, Ticketman, Scarecrow, The Senator and The Cat – has been taken out by the roots.

‘We’ve learnt over the past couple of years that lyrics are every bit as important as screaming guitars’, Paul Page, the band’s guitarist, told Dublin’s Evening Herald newspaper as Heartworm was released. To this end, the record is informed by a series of edgy literary references, especially the pop culture savvy of Will Self, Charles Bukowski and Bret Easton Ellis. But it’s the considerable shadow of the Irish writer, Patrick McCabe’s novel, ‘The Butcher Boy’ – in which a troubled young boy, who works at a local abattoir, murders his school-friend’s mother – that’s especially dominant. ‘The Butcher Boy’, like much of McCabe’s work, is populated by grotesque characters, located in small-town Ireland, prone to violence and close to evil. Fuelled, invariably, by Ireland’s secret national tipple: that lethal compound of tablets, booze, sex and religion. His writing is dark and ominous, with regular comic asides, and is under-scored by McCabe’s fondness for, and broad appreciation of, popular music and culture.

It was no wonder, then, that Whipping Boy’s appearance on The Late Late Show on Friday, October 6th, 1995, where the band performed ‘We Don’t Need Nobody Else’, unfolded like it did. The Late Late Show was then a fully live and hugely popular entertainment show, hosted by Gay Byrne, who doubled as its Executive Producer. He is the most influential figure in the history of Irish broadcasting and coverage of his funeral, in November, 2019, was carried live on national television and radio.

As Whipping Boy took their opening positions on The Late Late Show’s performance area, weeks before the official release of Heartworm, the host introduces them as ‘the new band out of Ireland’. The previous item on the show was a long interview with a husband-and-wife team from another era in Irish entertainment, Eileen Reid and Jimmy Day, high-profile figures on the domestic showband beat that dominated popular culture in Ireland for a decade from the late 1950s. The tonal disparity was enormous: Eileen and Jimmy were perfectly in synch with Gay Byrne’s more dewy-eyed sensibilities and those of his viewers.

Whipping Boy settle into the performance and, almost immediately, Fearghal de-couples the mic from its stand and makes his way towards the studio audience: the camera script is abandoned and the director sees out the rest of the performance on the fly. Live and loose, tightly-cropped and with a glint in his eye, a delinquent Evangelist, preaching heaven and hell, has commandeered the national airwaves. Behind him, the band pulls its way nervously through to the end, heads bowed as usual but with the odd glance up to catch the extent of the damage.

With the studio audience bolstered by family and friends, Whipping Boy are received with a warm round of applause and the camera cuts back to the host. ‘There’s a lady here in the front row’, Gay Byrne chuckles to his long-time floor manager, Denis, ‘and she thought they were very loud’. Off camera, Whipping Boy’s back-line is quickly stripped and de-rigged. They were never invited back.

A re-issued, re-packaged and re-mastered version of ‘Heartworm’, which also features a second disc of additional material, is now available on compact disc and vinyl. Vinyl copies can be ordered here https://store.dublinvinyl.com/collections/whipping-boy

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