SACK: THE GENERATION GAME

Sack’s excellent second album, ‘Butterfly Effect’, is the latest in a line of fine local releases from the 1990s to receive the big birthday treatment. Or, if you prefer, up-dated declarations of affection from dreary old-timers like myself, accompanied by ageless live shows in Cork, Dublin and Listowel. In marking the issue of a record that first saw the light of day in 1997, Sack join the likes of Power of Dreams, The Wormholes, Whipping Boy, The Frank And Walters and numerous others on the commemorative carousel with a well-founded sense, perhaps, that they have unfinished business.

They’ll make light of that kind of loose talk, of course, because that’s the way they are: as witty, wry and self-deprecating now as they were when they first emerged onto the Dublin left-bank nearly thirty years ago. But from their place on the podium, they speak to just how vibrant the independent-leaning sector in Ireland was during the 1990s. There’s been a slew of spectacular domestic releases in the decades since and, by any metric, new Irish music has never been more diverse or potent. Sack and their peers were hardly pioneers unearthing new ground but they certainly cemented the foundations for much of what we take for granted today. It’s hard to imagine now but there was a time when new music was costly to record, impossible to properly distribute without commercial ballast and when reputations were earned over time and not just over the internet. To this end, Sack are of a generation of local musicians for whom the pressing of a piece of vinyl was often marked by an informal national holiday or a lap of honour around Whelan’s.    

That sort of on-the-job training has clearly stood them in good stead: they sound as enthused and excited about what they do now than at any point in their long life together. On the evidence of ‘What A Way To Live’, the first cut from a larger body of new work written during the lockdowns, they just get better and cheekier the older they get.

Apart entirely from their sparkling body of fizzy pop songs, Sack are also a music genealogist’s dream, and their tentacles extend into a dozen or more other Irish groups. I first encountered them them as Lord John White, named after an Orange Juice b-side, a far more angular outfit at that point than the band they eventually morphed into. Formed around the core of the Brereton brothers, John and Tony, they snared the services of a formidable young vocalist, Martin McCann, from Aiken Drum, an electro-pop trio that also featured Dave Morrissey, who later surfaced in the bulked-up A House brigade during their Setanta Records years. Derek Lee, the bass player, earned his stripes with Guernica, one of the more interesting fringe groups on the Dublin circuit during the early 1980s while his brother, Garret ‘Jacknife’ Lee, came to prominence as the guitarist with Thee Amazing Colossal Men, who subsequently became Compulsion. Jacknife – now an internationally-regarded producer and currently partnering Cathal Coughlan as one-half of Telifís – will, to my mind at least, be forever known as ‘the brother’.

Derek and Tony have long grooved the solid wood flooring on which much of Sack’s spring-heeled activity over the years has taken place, and the band’s sound is still based largely around them, with Martin and John Brereton out front with the sprinkles. Many others have served tours of duty with them over the years and, if there was a national service for Irish musicians, Sack would clearly be the regiment of choice. And yet there’s something strangely comforting in how, after decades of twisty history, the band’s story still revolves around the same pillars: consistency in a world gone to war. In Sack’s current publicity photographs, their beards are the only concession to middle-age: in respect of their music, they have a mirror in the attic.     

The 1990 release of the ‘Jungleburger’ EP on Lord John White’s own label only hammered home their standing as one of the more curious local groups of the period. As politically savvy then as Sack are now, they needed no reminding of the power of music as advocacy and a force for social education. Like several of their contemporaries, The Slowest Clock perhaps most notably, they were a sharply-tuned, socially-sussed outfit at a time when it was neither popular or profitable and when the only issues debated inside the standard pop song framework involved the often convoluted politics of the heart.

The band has stayed loyal to those same left-leaning political credentials without ever over-flaunting them. From ecology to gay rights to the vexed issue of class, they’ve carefully stitched socially-astute patterns into much of their canon and, in this regard, I invariably tend to pair them with another outfit from the same post code, The Brilliant Trees, who fished from similar sources during the same period. I’ve written previously about the mighty years in the early and mid-1990s when both bands would bring serious travelling support with them from the suburbs to live shows in Dublin city centre, most notably at The Rock Garden in Temple Bar.

Many of those occasions were like community rallies set to inspiring rock and roll soundtracks: the venue would come alive, the buzz as charged and frantic as any I can remember on the domestic beat. So it was no surprise when, way down the line, Martin and Tony Barrett from The Brilliant Trees fetched-up in a terrific side-project called Elevens, who owe to ‘I’ve Seen Everything’-era Trash Cans and early, post-Style Council Weller. And it was maybe inevitable that Tony was called on at Sack’s live date last weekend at Dublin’s Grand Social to add his panache – and no little guitar heft – to three or four of the band’s most sterling cuts.  

My soft spot for Sack goes back to the time I spent working at The Rock Garden, when I saw and heard their story unfurl in front of me in real time. The band were regular visitors to the underground venue on Crown Alley and I’d leave my desk in the upstairs and wander down into the shallows to listen to them sound-checking as soon as I’d hear Brereton and Lee – Tolka Valley’s own Sly and Robbie – rumble into life. From the anonymity of the sound cage, I’d watch them play through some of the platinum material that eventually populated their first album: ‘What Did The Christians Ever Do For Us ?’,‘How The Stars Became Stars’ and ‘Indian Rope Trick’ had long-been stand-out live bangers before emerging on ‘You Are What You Eat’, Sack’s debut elpee, released in 1994 on the London-based indie, Lemon Records. Over the previous couple of years, myself and the afternoon waiting staff at The Rock Garden had seen those songs develop muscle and take shape from slender origins.     

‘Pope John Paul II in Ireland’, an album compiled from recordings made during the papal visit here in 1979 and released by RTÉ, is among the top five best-selling albums of all-time in this country. JP2 and his unique brand of papal bull also features at the top and tail of ‘What Did The Christians Ever Do For Us ?’: a sample of one of his public sermons was a late add-on to Sack’s most arresting number at the suggestion, possibly, of Donal Dineen. Dineen was another fervent admirer and in Martin, who has long enjoyed another side-line as a terrific club DJ, he saw a kindred spirit, I think. So when we were granted access to the national airwaves in 1993, we made sure that that ‘Christians’ and ‘Indian Rope Trick’ were given residency on the first series of the No Disco television strand.

Those no-budget videos were the work of Eamonn Crudden, the gifted film-maker and writer who conjured a series of terrific clips out of thin air for several domestic bands during this time, all of which we featured prominently on the programme. Eamonn later founded and ran the Dead Elvis imprint with his brother, Óg, releasing a glut of quality material by the likes of In Motion, The Wormholes and The Floors, among others.

One of the more memorable interviews we conducted during that first season of No Disco was with Martin McCann, who felt comfortable enough in Donal’s company to open up about death, his background and his sexuality with the same kind of candour and honesty with which Sack have always gone about their business. And in May, 1994, when we ran a live fund-raiser for the Cork AIDS Alliance up in Nancy Spain’s, they were one of the first groups we asked to take part. They played an all-too short set that captured the best of them at that point: ‘You Are What You Eat’ in seven or eight easy pieces, basically.

‘Butterfly Effect’ is a far sturdier concern than its predecessor and it also up-turns a long-held cliché: its a way more coherent and cohesive record than the band’s debut. Released in 1997 on a local indie, Dirt Records, its buttressed by a series of songs the band debuted at a memorable live show in Whelan’s the previous year that I attended in the company of another top-drawer songwriter from Finglas, Mark Cullen from Bawl, Fixed Stars and Pony Club. Sack, like many Irish groups before them and plenty more after – like Bawl, indeed – had located to London in a welter of good vibes and buoyed, no doubt, by the mainstream breakthroughs achieved in Britain by the likes of Ash, Therapy? and The Frank and Walters. That their time in London didn’t work out for them as they’d hoped may well have dented their confidence and shaken their self-belief but that much, as can often be the case, certainly wasn’t apparent in the music.

I remember a conversation with Martin and John one time about  ‘London Kills Me’, the 1991 film directed by the acclaimed author, Hanif Kureishi. Its narrative arc revolves around a cast of disenfranchised, down-at-heel young men and women cut adrift and struggling to get by in post-Thatcher Britain: the under-lying message is that London is indeed the greatest city in the world but only if you have a full pocket with which to enjoy it. On one of the new numbers, ‘‘Wish You Were Here’, Martin harked back to the Kureishi film when he referred to how London was thrilling him and killing him at the same time. ‘It’s easy to become a forgotten man’, he sang. One might be inclined to think that somewhere in here – the importance of legacy and a sense of self-worth – is what propelled Sack onwards and outwards then and maybe what still does now ?

The band had swapped out its keyboards for a second guitarist – Dave Dorgan from The Candy Shop, no shy boy he – and I couldn’t believe how robust the new material was. ‘Blood Lover’ was just spectacular, John at his most deceptively muscular, full-on strum-und-drang, clocking in efficiently at just under three minutes while Martin riffed about blood sacrifice, various sexual peccadilloes and the price of love. ‘Laughter Lines’ was imperious, a showcase for our hero’s spectacular vocal range and one of his best ever lyrics, loaded variously with menace, anger and innuendo. From the band’s considerable body of work, I’m not sure if Martin’s ever bettered the lines that run:  

‘I drink to forget but I only remember your face, and the sweat on your brow, and the laughter lines’.

Elsewhere, ‘A Sunny Day’, ‘Beginner’s Luck’, ‘Latitude’, ‘Angel’ and ‘I’ve Heard You Singing’ were just conveyer-belting the sound of a band at the absolute peak of its creative powers.

Those songs were subsequently committed to tape in a small studio in Dublin city, produced by Paul Tipler, with cameos from the great and the good. Garret Lee contributed a series of meshed guitar lines, Marc Carolan – now an internationally regarded sound engineer, togging out with Muse, among others – worked the studio bench while Dave Dorgan and Ken Rice from Engine Alley added the holy water.

Another formidable personality had also bestowed his patronage on them: Morrissey. The singer moved to Dublin in the mid-1990s and was an irregular fixture around town for the guts of eighteen months or so, during which he struck up a strong friendship with the band and, through them, discovered not only the joy of Sack[s] but of several other emerging Dublin bands. Morrissey’s 2013 book, ‘Autobiography’, references The Thrills and Pony Club and mentions Martin’s ‘iron-column kindness’. He championed Sack as fervently as anyone and also put his money where his big mouth was, inviting the group to open for him on the Oye Esteban world tour during 1999 and 2000. It wasn’t just a fleeting dalliance either, and one of my more bizarre memories from a life spent standing beside sound desks is the sight of Morrissey valiantly attempting to blend into the wallpaper at the back of an over-full, short-lived, upstairs venue on Camden Street in Dublin during a random Sack show there a decade or so ago.  

And of course in the worst traditions of these things, ‘Butterfly Effect’ just withered on the vine, another terrific Irish album disappeared by the vagaries of the market. A record as spectacularly lost as ‘The Grand Parade’, ‘Churchtown’, ‘I Want Too Much’ and ‘2 Hell With Common Sense’, and just as good as any of them. In full, double-album glory, and with fresh artwork and a glamorous finish, ‘Butterfly Effect’ is re-released on April 22nd on Dimple Discs.

In the meantime, one might do well to remember that its never too late to repent.

https://dimplediscsack.bandcamp.com/album/butterfly-effect

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