‘The one band that has kept Irish rock alive internationally in 1988’, roared Dave Fanning from the scaffolded stage at the RDS on Saturday, September 3rd, 1988, as he welcomed The Hothouse Flowers out onto the boards. A year, it should be said, after the release of U2’s ‘The Joshua Tree’ album and a matter of weeks before they released the ‘Rattle and Hum’ film and double-elpee, their first since Time magazine featured the Dublin four-piece on its cover as ‘Rock’s hottest ticket’.
The Flowers were one of numerous young Irish bands who benefitted from the power in U2’s slipstream. Rooted in the dreamy visions of their founding fathers – Liam Ó Maonlaoí and Fiachna Ó Braonáin, and then later Peter O’Toole – their sound was eventually buffed-up by Leo Barnes on saxophone and by Jerry Fehily, a stylish drummer from the southside of Cork city. For their biggest ever headlining show at the end of a euphoric summer, they were bolstered at the RDS by additional keyboards and backing vocals. No holds barred, no chances taken, all in.
With their long hair, in their sandalled-feet and their white tunics and pantaloons, they might well have been risen Christs, born again and walking on water. With Fanning as guest celebrant, this much wasn’t lost on the crowd, estimated at between 25,000 and 35,000, who had assembled on a sun-kissed afternoon in Dublin 4. With support on the day from The Black Velvet Band, Aswad, Deacon Blue and Tracy Chapman, the show marked the culmination of a six-month storm for the group that first began to rumble three miles up the road at Coláiste Eoin on the Stillorgan Road, in the heart of the what is, to all intents, a quasi-Gaeltacht area in South Dublin. Over the last fifty years, that part of the county – increasingly influenced by the Gaelscoil movement, the biggest GAA clubs in the country and the city-within-city campus at University College Dublin – is where the Irish language, I would argue, is now at its most influential. And it’s where The Hothouse Flowers have their complicated roots: a compound of soul-doused, contemporary popular music with an old-school traditional Irish and folk.
Liam and Fiachna – and many of their teachers, classmates and peers – are key to the promotion and development of Irish traditional cultural values in South County Dublin during the 1970s and 80 at a time when it was far from profitable and often politically loaded. The founding of GAA clubs in Ballyboden [Saint Enda’s], Dalkey [Cuala], Sandyford [Saint Olaf’s] and Ballinteer [Saint John’s] between 1969 and 1982, the posting of a number of forward-thinking Christian Brothers into the area and the establishment of Scoil Naithí, an all-Irish primary school, in 1973, are all important parts of the modern social history of the area in which The Flowers’ story is grounded. Given the prominence of the Irish language in their make-up, its little wonder that some of the country’s most prominent critics found the band so difficult to read: to many of them, this sort of carry-on was just anathema. The plan to keep Ireland safe for rock and roll never, ever, involved the first language of the state or the national games: hurling and Gaelic football were dismissed for many years within the covers of Hot Press magazine, for example, as ‘stick-fighting’ and ‘bogball’.
But The Flowers just got on with it and paid scant attention to the prevailing moods of the day. Wearing their hearts on their sleeves, the band is pointedly snapped on its debut album, ‘People’ , with a battery of traditional instruments in hand. On the follow-up, ‘Home’ , Liam is featured with a tin whistle protruding from the pocket of his jacket in what is otherwise a moody group shot. And it worked for them too: during those years from 1988 until 1992, The Flowers built a considerable following at home and abroad: not only was Liam one of the most lusted-after figures in the country, he also had power in his lungs and a mighty breadth to his singing.
As The Hothouse Flowers were recording ‘People’, Van Morrison and The Chieftains were busy too on one of the most culturally-significant albums in Irish music history, ‘Irish Heartbeat’. As well as giving Morrison his biggest commercial success in years, that album is distinguished by its cultural pluralism, what Noel McLaughlin and Martin McLoone describe as ‘one of the most distinctive voices in rock music meets the unmistakable rhythms of Irish traditional music’. That interchange is nowhere near as obvious on The Flowers’ recorded output, but it certainly defines the band’s character, which is built, to all intents, on the free-form spirit of the Irish festival circuit of the 1970s, most notably Lisdoonvarna, Carnsore Point and Ballisodare.
But The Flowers were just as keenly schooled in the contemporary popular sounds du jour too and, released on Mother Records in 1986, their debut single, ‘Love Don’t Work This Way’, is redolent of the ambition that courses through Simply Red’s terrific early material. Featuring the formidable pipes of Maria Doyle on co-lead vocals, ‘Love …’ was as typical of The Flowers’ sense of adventure as it was of that of the label on which it was issued. I’ve heard many whacky theories about Mother Records over the decades, one more insane than the next, but the ambition of the imprint’s first ten releases – starting with In Tua Nua and also including The Subterraneans and Operating Theatre – flies in the face of much of the flaky criticism levelled at it. Whisper it, but the thinking behind Mother Records was replicated shortly afterwards on another small Irish indie whose logo also featured Celtic spirals: Setanta Records.
As it had done with both In Tua Nua and another of its early signings, Cactus World News, Mother also helped to get The Flowers away quickly on a deal with a major international label, London Records. During a period when Dublin could easily have been twinned with the executive record company holdings around Soho Square in London, they led a cultural revival of their own: for several years The Flowers were in the vanguard of what we can respectfully call the first-wave of post-U2 optimism, playing hot and heavy in the major leagues.
For fifteen years, from the launch of what was then RTÉ Radio 2 in May, 1979, every single Irish music event of note featured Dave Fanning, one of that station’s first platoon of disc jockeys, on MC duty. In that time he was ubiquitous on live stages all over the country, bringing credibility and no little glamour to even the most humdrum five-band charity bash. Although perennially locked into the fringes of the national radio schedules, steadfastly pushing the envelopes alongside producers like Ian Wilson and Jim Lockhart, his long innings on the airwaves has been central to the development of a vibrant, far more diverse and plainly more interesting landscape for music in Ireland. Entertainment historians will recall him far more fondly, I suspect, than successive top tables in RTÉ, but his contribution to public broadcasting in Ireland is immense and, in its own way, his legacy is just as important as those of Gay Byrne and Larry Gogan. Having pushed them from the outset, it was only right and proper that he formally welcomed The Hothouse Flowers back to their own back-yard.
Four months previously, the 1988 Eurovision Song Contest took place in an indoor hall on that same sprawling RDS complex in Simmonscourt. Hosted by RTÉ, and presented by Pat Kenny and Michelle Rocca, that night is remembered for two things: the winning performer, Celine Dion, who represented Switzerland, and a lavish film clip featuring The Hothouse Flowers performing ‘Don’t Go’ – a cut from their debut album – at iconic locations all across Europe. That hi-jacking of the interval in front of an enormous, cross-continent audience unquestionably helped the emerging band’s career onwards, if not into a mega sphere then certainly to the commercial summits in Britain and elsewhere.
In Cork city centre, the various record shops would pull the weekly U.K. pop charts from Music Week or one of the other trade papers and Sellotape them onto the counters. Those album and singles charts, detailing the biggest-selling records in Britain, stretched on for an eternity, far beyond the forty cuts on which the weekly television bulletin, Top of the Pops, based it’s Thursday-night broadcasts. The Music Week charts were strictly for honours students of popular music only: it was where climbers, re-entries and those ‘bubbling under’ had their origins. I bought many of my first records in the old Golden Discs shop half-way down Patrick Street and it was on the counter there, and on that Music Week chart, that I first noticed The Flowers sneaking gently upwards in the weeks after ‘People’ was released. It became, and may still be, the biggest-selling Irish debut album in history.
Produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, ‘People’ is a fine debut. The singles – ‘Don’t Go’ and the tub-thumping riff-song, ‘Feet On The Ground’ – are the immediate stand-outs but there’s real gold buried off-track, ‘Yes I Was’, ‘I’m Sorry’ and ‘Hallelujah Jordan’ most notably. Big, dramatic cuts with layers of backing vocals, pounding piano, brassy finishes and slashed organ runs, The Flowers were canny operators, as grand in their design, and as restless with it, as The Waterboys during that same period.
And they took a couple of almighty belts for their troubles too. Because their frame of reference extended beyond the standard, guitar-led boundaries of the period – they were influenced more by Van Morrison than by Sterling Morrison – The Flowers were easy to dismiss as tin-can poets, buskers with go-faster stripes on. Even their positive notices were laced with caveats: ‘this was the day The Hothouse Flowers proved all the knockers wrong’, wrote the late Eugene Moloney in Dublin’s Evening Herald of that RDS show. ‘Typically flawed in a manner that only home champions like The Hothouse Flowers could escape with’, concluded David Bell in a punishment beating doled out in The Irish Press. ‘Frighteningly corny’, he added, kicking the corpse.
By the time of the group’s second album, ‘Home’, which was led by the imperious single, ‘Give It Up’, they’d been consigned to a box with the dog-on-twine brigade, the raggle-taggle set whose crusty soundtrack was dominated by Connemara-vintage Waterboys, The Black Velvet Band and later The Big Geraniums and The Sawdoctors. It was, I think, a lazy enough association but one that The Flowers never convincingly shook and, even at their peak, there was something frightfully other-worldly about them. The Irish folk songs, ‘Carrickfergus’ and ‘She Moved Through the Fair’ were, for instance, regulars in the band’s live sets for years. With Liam vamping away at the piano, the band would meander off for ages, losing themselves in their fancies. ‘Pure wank’, remarked Jerry Fehily of a fifteen-minute version of ‘She Moved …’ performed live at Belfast’s Opera House during the band’s Irish tour in the summer of 1990 in a magazine feature piece. Fehily’s views on the band’s short version of another traditional tune, ‘Seoladh na nGamhna’ – which translates as ‘The Herding/Driving of the Goats’ and which closes the ‘Home’ elpee in a sean-nós style – are unrecorded.
Like many second albums, ‘Home’ was clearly more difficult to complete and, as can often be the case, was recorded in a variety of locations with a multitude of producers and engineers. The credits list goes on for an eternity but, despite the numerous bodies involved in the recording, ‘Home’ is a fine, punchy affair that benefits greatly from the steady hands and renowned ears of Langer and Winstanley – who, I suspect, threw some sort of a sonic lasso around it – and also Norman Verso, the band’s veteran soundman.
For all that, I’ve long thought that The Flowers were a more powerful live concern than they were on record and, in the line of duty, I’ve seen them at over the years in a range of venues, from pubs with notions to formal concert settings and the great outdoors. But nowhere did I see the band’s sorcery more spectacularly than when I took a series of buses from Cork to Dingle in April, 1990, to see them perform in The Hillgrove Hotel. That trip – which took the guts of a day to complete – was only really made bearable by the band’s performance, which was as memorable as anything I’ve seen in the decades I’ve spent loitering around sound desks. Long before the Other Voices franchise, The Flowers – like The Waterboys and several notable others – would infrequently fetch up in some of the country’s most unlikely destinations and put on what were often remarkable displays aided, I have no doubt, by the intimacy between players and audiences that can often be found in bespoke venues where standard rules don’t apply.
The band at its peak was popular without ever being especially trendy or on-point and, in this regard, I would argue that their personal backgrounds played a real part in how they were received. The Flowers were managed throughout this period by Robbie Wootton and, for several years, were regulars in the social pages of The Sunday Independent where they were name-checked alongside local models, liggers and assorted hangers-on. Based at The Factory, the expansive rehearsal facility that Wootton ran down in Ringsend, they were as close to the seat of local industry power as anyone, an impressive feat given how out of kilter they were with most of what that scene represented. In this regard they are reminiscent of The Thrills, another band with its roots in South Dublin who made a quick-fire breakthrough with their first album but who were often assessed critically in respect of who they knew and where they were from as opposed to what they sounded like.
I was reminded of this by Liam’s recent appearance on ‘Keys to My Life’, an RTÉ series in which public figures return to the bedsits, garrets and lodgings in which they once lived, loved and heated themselves using Super Sers. The Flowers are products of a period when it was expected of anyone of even a moderately artistic bent to move from room to room, flat to flat and house to house, with alacrity. Indeed my own command of the geography of the greater Dublin area has been informed by the many addresses I’ve had on both sides of the river during the decades I’ve lived here. [I should add that a fear envelops me whenever my Garda vetting is due for renewal and I’m compelled to remember and list the various addresses in which I’ve dossed down, and with whom.]
‘Keys To My Life’ operates on similar principles and the half-hour in which Liam was escorted through particular aspects of a long and colourful past made for a decent watch. Apart from once again reminding us of the transient, uncertain and largely unprofitable nature of life as a jobbing musician and artist, Liam’s various addresses reflect a life spent constantly on the move and rarely stood still.
And it goes on: The Flowers are still very much an active concern, in as much as any band or performer can be in the current climate. In the grand traditions of these things, Liam, Fiachna and Peter are now joined behind the traps by Dave Clarke, the one-time drummer with the gnarly Churchtown outfit, Blue In Heaven. Fiachna doubles up as a familiar and balming presence on national radio and is used regularly as a voice-over artist on various television projects. Peter last year recorded and released a solo album that he wrote and performed on ten different instruments, ‘Leaving White Cedar’, at his home in Tipperary.
And Liam’s voice, I’m happy to report, retains its urgency, range and raw beauty. Heavily bearded and carrying well the wear-and-tear of decades of life as a working musician, whenever I see him or hear him perform these days it’s as likely to be free-styling from behind a harp or scatting sean nós as it is leading a veteran pop band in middle age. Still looking out on the wilds, carried by the waves.