The Frank and Walters, Into Paradise, Serengeti Long Walk, Kooky, Blink, We Cut Corners and Bawl: just some of the numerous Irish groups I’ve spent far too much time obsessing about over the many decades I’ve put in as a hanger-on. In the great, untouchable traditions of popular culture, they’ve all triggered my brain enough at various junctions over the last thirty-five years to the point where, today, I can probably remember some of their material better than they can themselves.
I’ve given many Irish bands sterling character references over the years: what some of them might refer to in retrospect as the kiss of death, locking on as if life itself depended on those visceral moments that instinctively connected performer and listener. When football clubs were run by local businessmen who ran small shops that rented television sets and video recorders, this carry-on was sometimes called ‘the dreaded vote of confidence. As it happens, David Long’s father did in fact run a television rentals business down in Rathmines but the Into Paradise singer’s days as a novice repairman working in the family trade are largely under-reported, and probably for the better.
I never once felt that, by loitering in the company of a generation of musicians like a spare, I was doing anything other than God’s own work: I genuinely believed that we were all fighting an important cultural battle. Over there, beyond the rainbow, we were campaigning for a better and brighter future for popular music on our own terms. Some of us landed into pretty dark places for our troubles but I’m forever glad to have been there and, whenever I struggle to remember the detail, the music itself helps to join the dots, exactly as we always claimed it would. Which is why I’ll forever associate Blink – a powerful, well-upholstered live band – with a night in the company of the late Uaneen Fitzsimons up at a bonkers college show in Queens University with Doctor and the Medics and a long night in a city-centre hotel in Manchester that may, or may not, have also been frequented by Miki and Emma from Lush.
In much the same vein, it was Freedy Johnston’s imperious ‘Can You Fly’ elpee that provided the on-board sound-track to a short tour of Alicante with Into Paradise where, at one late-night show at a massive club venue, the band played such a long set that it actually ran out of material. Kooky’s first – and still only – album, ‘The Good Old Days’, catapults me back to a series of long nights in an apartment on Pembroke Road during which a terrific record, part-funded by our hero’s work as an extra on a television soap opera, took shape over a period of years and against considerable odds. That album eventually grew wings and took flight like one of those magnificent birds shot in super slo-mo on ‘Blue Planet’. You get the idea.
Anyone familiar with the centre of Cork city will know well the war memorial on the Grand Parade that was erected in the 1920s to commemorate those from the county who died in World War One. It carries an imposing three-word reminder – or is it a warning ? – cut into its stone-work: lest we forget. My father outlined the history of that statue to me many years ago and, after I moved into a small flat on Sullivan’s Quay in 1993, I’d pass it by every single day and, the odd time, would scan the names listed on it. Irrespective of one’s politics or grasp, or otherwise, of the complicated history of independent Ireland, imposing monuments like these serve a fundamental purpose: they cause one to pause and think. I’ve done an awful lot of reflection at that spot over the years.
In keeping with the spirit of the age, our homely two-bed flat on the quay-side was dominated by cassettes, compact discs and random pieces of vinyl. We didn’t have a whole lot of space and you’d struggle to find a pint of milk in the fridge but we had the first Wedding Present albums and a couch for strays so we were grand. At night, in the great traditions of high-rise living in the middle of cities, I’d sometimes sit in the window frame and look out down the imposing stretch onto the Grand Parade, where the war memorial stood tall. Lest we forget.
I’ve lost hundreds of albums and compact discs over the years, many of them leant in good faith to folk who drifted briefly into – and just as quickly out of – my life at various points. On the pretext that, in at least one respect, I had good cutting and no little taste, I’ve given away numerous copies of ‘A Happy Pocket’ by Trash Can Sinatras: that album has been like a very expensive calling card for me. And of course as these things tend to go, I don’t currently own a physical copy of it myself.
What I do have is a framed copy of the sleeve to one of the singles from that magnificent elpee, ‘Twisted and Bent’, which has long hung proudly in the small downstairs toilet in my house. It occupies a vaunted position alongside The Harvest Ministers’ ‘Little Dark Mansion’, A House’s ‘On Our Big Fat Merry Go-Round’ and The Divine Comedy’s ‘Promenade’, all of them commemorated where there is water. I should add here that although I don’t own an original Padraic McCaul painting either, at least two of the albums he played on as a member of The Harvest Ministers hang on our walls in Dublin 14 and that’s an irony that isn’t lost on either the artist or myself.
‘Girl’s Night Out’, one of the first zesty singles by the Dublin four-piece, Bawl, is also on that wall. The sleeve features a vintage, old-school hair-dryer and the art-work is finished in typically sleazy colours, replete with the band’s logo, which was based on the old Dunlop label. The band later dropped that branding presumably, one suspects, after an exchange of legal letters.
Bawl were based around the creative core of three brothers from Finglas – Mark, Darren and Jason Cullen – and a busy bass-playing friend of theirs – and a member of the royal family at The Underground Bar during its glory nights – Stephen McBride. And for three or four years during the mid-1990s, they had stars in their eyes and the big time in their cross-hairs. They wrapped the sleazier vagaries of life in suburban housing estates in a guitar-pop shaped lagging jacket and the band’s debut album, ‘Year Zero’ , is a fine piece of work that’s all the better for that. Needless to say that the record was spectacularly over-looked, desperately under-promoted and quickly wuthered on the vine. Bawl re-calibrated their compass slightly, re-invented themselves as Fixed Stars – later evolving into an ostensible one-man operation called Pony Club – and made a string of crackling records, none of which managed to ignite beyond the margins and were issued to ever-decreasing levels of interest. It’s a familiar story: the attrition rate for the raft of quality Irish groups that snared major label deals during this period pock-marks much of the history of popular music in the country throughout the 1990s.
I return to ‘Year Zero’ regularly. It is, to my mind, among the great lost Irish albums of the last thirty years, of which there are far too many. And for what it’s worth, I also rate Mark among the best songwriters to have emerged from here in that time. He was a cheeky cur with it too, of course. ‘I’ve got references from all my old girlfriends, just to show you how good in bed I was’, he sings on ‘Shallow’, one of the numerous marquee cuts on ‘Year Zero’. And that more or less told you where Bawl pitched their ambitions and how Mark saw himself: a lispy urchin with a roving eye.
He used to say that he coined the band’s name from a reference in James Joyce’s ‘Finnegan’s Wake’, presumably on the basis that most of those he was spinning tall tales to never actually read it. But he drew far more inspiration from the story of Toni O’Neill, the Dublin housewife and mother of two who, during the 1980s, performed exotic dance routines at The Hunting Lodge pub in Ballyfermot on Sunday mornings to help pay for her children’s education. More commonly known by her full handle, Toni the Exotic Dancer, she was regularly splashed across the pages of the Sunday World newspaper, Ireland’s first colour tabloid, which was launched in March 1973, and which remains one of the most bizarre, unique and successful creations in the history of popular media in the country. The first ever edition of the paper led with a story about young republican women in Belfast luring unsuspecting British soldiers into ‘sex traps’, a trailer for an inside piece about Irish nurses in London on heroin and a colour photograph of an emerging Irish actress, Jeananne Crowley, togged out in the trendy gear du jour. A populist editorial diet of sex, drugs, paramilitarism, crime, sport and religion has fuelled the paper’s editorial direction in the five decades since it was launched, and with serious commercial success. ‘Are you getting it every Sunday ?’, ran the marketing tag-line for The Sunday World as it was first launched onto the Irish market. It’s a question, I suspect, that Mark also asked of the set-upon cast, all of them on anti-depressants and barely keeping on, that populated his songs.
I first met him at the college in Ballyfermot, back in the early 1990s, at a panel discussion about the Irish music industry to which myself and the music writer, Jim Carroll, were invited. From memory, the debate became very salty very quickly and we must have been an unmerciful dose to listen to, just blathering on. Mark – in red PVC trews and wearing long, blond hair that extended to his waist – made himself known to us after we’d wrapped up, explained that he was in a band, claimed he had a few ideas on the boil and was wondering where he needed to go next. And it all happened quickly enough for him and his band thereafter: even at that stage many of their songs were already well formed and, once the formidable A House manager, John Carroll, took them under his wing, they more or less fled the coop and were quickly at altitude.
I heard ‘Year Zero’ for the first time on a pre-release tape Mark sneaked to me months before it was issued and I couldn’t believe how muscular they’d become and how well they sounded. From the angry, bass-led instrumental, ‘Approaching Zero’, that opens the album to the charging, last-minute addition, ‘He’s All That’s Great About Pop’ that closes it and across the dozen spiky pop songs that form the meat in the middle, they’d become seriously buff. Six months spent working their craft on Britain’s merciless live circuit and six weeks in a studio at Ridge Farm with producer Al Clay had them match fit well ahead of schedule: they sounded like they were benching at a ferocious rate. As an aside, and with an eye on Mark’snumerous associations with Setanta Records throughout his career, Al Clay had also engineered a handful of cuts on the Into Paradise elpee, ‘Churchtown’.
Barely eighteen months before the formal release of ‘Year Zero’, Bawl had fetched up at what was an on-site Training Centre – don’t look for it, it’s not there anymore – on the grounds of RTÉ. I was one of a number of trainee television producers apprenticed there in 1994, during which I was asked to find a young band who’d be patient enough – and cheap enough – to go through the motions for a class of a dozen would-be studio directors during a week-long module. Directing music using multiple cameras in a television studio setting is a rare skill that has only ever been properly mastered by a handful of local practitioners, and certainly not by any of us in that class: most of us spent the week calling shots that didn’t actually exist.
Bawl fetched up for a small fee and, over the course of five days, went through a series of rehearsals and studio performances during which they got progressively noisier, cheekier and crankier. While on set in the small, cramped studio facility, they repeatedly rolled out some of their best early material – ‘Sticky Rock, ‘Fat Boy’ and ‘Citrus’ – for the great and the good of Irish media and journalism, among them a future Director General of RTÉ, a young director who’sgone on to earn international acclaim as a quality film-maker and one of Ireland’s best-known political journalists and broadcasters, all of whom were taking their chances on the wall of death. In my more reflective moments, I like to think it was the making of the band and the breaking of that class: they were incredible.
I haven’t seen Mark in decades, although I’m greatly comforted to know that he’s still out there, still making music, writing away: the last I heard, he was working with Ian Broudie. I met Stephen at a Frank and Walters show one night in The Workman’s Club, which only reminded me about what a classy operator he always was. Darren and myself are friends on Facebook – where else ? – and a few years back, I saw Jason, the drummer, working the security beat in the departures area at Dublin airport, looking every inch the rock star.
Because when you have it, you have it. And we can’t forget that.