Lambo, Uaneen, Byrner and Strangey: names to conjure with for those of us who studied at The Rock Garden in Dublin, and graduated with dishonour, during its brief but colourful existence in the early 1990s. Just some of a wide-ranging cast of regulars, all of them lost over-board far too early, who sprinkled the magic around what might otherwise have been a far less interesting venue that was booked, without fanfare but with a great deal of good humour and no little humility, by Jeff Brennan. The Rock Garden was Ireland’s best live music venue for much of its history and, to its credit, shared little else bar its name with the club in London’s Covent Garden from where the would-be franchise emanated. Jeff’s nose for a decent band was matched only by the quality of his put-downs and, by any stretch, we enjoyed a host of memorable days and nights on Crown Alley.
They’re taking them down from our own shelf now is a marvellous line I’ve stolen from the mother of a friend of mine to describe the death of one’s contemporaries and peers. It’s a simple but quietly devastating expression, and one which we’ve had to use with far more frequency the further we’ve headed into the fog. It’s a line I had to reach for again last weekend when news broke of the death of Steve Strange, the Carrickfergus-raised booker and agent, the latest recruit into that chorus.
I can’t remember when I last spoke to or had any dealings with Steve, but he’s featured regularly in some of my more ribald rock and roll confessionals since our paths first crossed on Dublin’s live music circuit thirty-odd years ago. The numerous tributes that have been paid to him in the days since his death – he was the same age as me, 53 – from performers and musicians of all hues, have referenced the lust for living that coursed through him. And it’s fair to say that Jeff and myself saw that on numerous occasions over the years, long before Steve became a global consideration that represented the likes of Coldplay, Eminem, Queens of the Stone Age, Ed Sheeran, Snow Patrol and a winding avenue of bands from the back-rooms to the Enormodomes.
Strangey was a frustrated drummer-turned-promoter who worked the live beat in Belfast at a time when the best new music emerging on the island was on the boil far from Dublin and when Tiberius Minnows, Ghost of an American Airman, Rare, Catchers, The Divine Comedy and an obscenely under-age Ash were leading the next generation out of the north. Working alongside Eamon McCann and based in a small box-room at the back of The Limelight Bar, the long-running club on Ormeau Avenue, he became part of an informal alliance of independent-thinking promoters on the circuit here who, whenever possible, preferred to row their own boats and trust their own instincts, often at the expense of popular mood and financial viability. That cohort shouldn’t be under-estimated in any coherent over-view of that period in Irish entertainment.
Uaneen Fitzsimons, from Ardglass in County Down, was another who cut a familiar dash around that same milieu, a recent Communications graduate from what we now know as Dublin City University, footloose and looking for a start. Like Steve Strange, she was a fierce and consistent champion for the music that derived from her own back yard, but they shared several other traits too. They were proud, flame-haired northerners who lived for music but, far more importantly, understood the vagaries, insanities and inanities that characterise the world in which it bubbles. In November, 2000, word filtered through that Uaneen – who, like many of her favourite artists and songs, was destined to live forever – had been lost on the road back to Dublin from Cork. She never made it as far as her thirtieth birthday, the first taken down from our own shelf.
Steve Strange too was bulletproof, and he often reminded us of that. Jeff used to refer to him as ‘fun-sized’, and what he lacked in physical stature he certainly made up for with stamina. On those occasions when he’d venture down on state visits to Dublin, the nights went on that little bit longer and, with his red mullet, sprayed-on denims and stacked heels, he cut a distinctive shape. Whenever he fetched up in person at The Rock Garden, an instruction would go out to the unsuspecting bar staff to ‘turn and face The Strange’. To a man and woman, they had absolutely no idea what we were on about.
Mistakenly thinking we knew anything about it, Steve once asked us to introduce him to Dublin’s club life, and so we dutifully dragged him from The Baggot to Lillies to The Pink Elephant – places we’d read about in The Evening Herald – before repairing, in the cold of the morning, back to The Rock Garden. In our matching dress jackets, Jeff reckons we looked like three members of the Bash Street Kids, a charge you’d struggle to defend in any court in the land.
Steve ran initially with a Northern soft metal outfit, No Hot Ashes, and he’d regularly reference his career behind the traps with them. He told us that the group was named after a printed instruction someone first saw on waste bins on a street which, we’d say, was apt given how rubbish they were. But he was a brazen teller of bould tales himself too and could dole out slaggings as well as anyone. For legal reasons, and in the interests of good taste, I won’t repeat any of his greatest hits here. Suffice to say that, with his stash of tall tales and his out-sized laugh, he was like an audio version of Hammer of the Gods, customised for the regulars in The Limelight.
It is Ash, the outrageously good power-pop outfit from Downpatrick, with whom I’ll forever associate him, though. Their breakthrough into the British mainstream coincided with Steve’s second coming on the London-led live scene – where he worked with some of the bigger agencies like Wasted Talent and Solo – and that connection with the group endured right up until his death. Irrespective of how their careers unfurled over the years, Steve consistently stayed loyal to all of his pet sounds, Ash arguably being his most cherished of all.
In an industry pock-marked by sharp practice, incessant shape-throwing and paranoia, he was a genuine outlier who enjoyed a unique distinction: he was an agent that bands and artists actually liked. Because apart entirely from the fact that it was impossible not to, he also had the touch that distinguishes some of the better-known and more dominant figures in modern popular music: he had a great ear for a song, regardless of style, sound or genre.
And of course, there’s an inevitable Cork angle. When he first returned to the London live circuit thirty years ago, Steve shared digs with a Cork band, Emperor of Ice Cream, and then later moved in with one of The Sultans of Ping. And irrespective of how big and stellar both he and his roster became once he founded X-ray Touring and began to develop his business globally, I’m certain that Strangey never forgot where he’d come from or the circuit or groups that helped to get him there. Or, indeed, the minor characters with whom he fleetingly crossed paths, including those who’d blagged him into some of Dublin’s gaudy fleshpots decades previously. To this end, I don’t think that he ever really missed Belfast or The Limelight either because, in one way, he never really left: he just lived and worked somewhere else.