Many of the summers I put down as a child were spent in the small village of Union Hall, then a bendy ninety minute drive from my home in the city and into the belly of the beast in West Cork. It’s a tradition that’s proudly preserved in my family to this day and we’re now four generations down the path since my grandparents first swapped their flat on the Old Market Place off of Blarney Street for holiday lodgings on the Union Hall quayside in the 1940s. My mother’s name lives on there too: an inscription on a bench reminds us that she loved the sun and she loved Union Hall. How could she not?
I too am commemorated in West Cork, although far less elegantly. Across the estuary from Union Hall, a small cutting is pinned to the wall of Connolly’s Bar in Leap, one of the more celebrated off-Broadway live music venues in the country. It’s of a review I wrote after a typically unfiltered live show there by a Dublin band, Something Happens, that was carried in an issue of Melody Maker magazine on September 24th, 1993. A couple of weeks before the airing of the first episode of a new RTÉ music series, ‘No Disco’, I’d been enticed down to Leap by Tony O’Donoghue who, even then, was a man far more in the know than any of us. Before his journalism took him into sports broadcasting, he held court on Patrick Street, where he could be found most days if you hung around long enough. In his rock and roll duds and with a briefcase in hand, he was Cork city’s popular cultural go-to: a human information kiosk for hopeless indie oiks. I’ve written previously about his numerous contributions to the shaping of popular music in Cork city during the 1980s and 1990s: it was often thankless and dirty work and shouldn’t be forgotten.
In his role as a roving cultural ambassador, Tony was a consistent and fervent champion of Something Happens who, apart entirely from a similar, guitar-doused lineage, shared a taste in shirts and, for a number of years, an exclamation mark at the end of their handle, with the band he himself minded, Cypress, Mine! The groups played several fiery shows together at venues all over Cork during the late 1980s, a memorable double-header at The Underground, a sticky-floored and piddle-soaked fire-trap around the side of Roches Stores, among the stand-outs.
By 1993, Something Happens were at a fork in their career as sharp as the turn-off out of Leap and onto the meandering old road towards Glandore. The four-piece had first emerged as a decent live concern during the early days of another venue called The Underground, this one on Dublin’s Dame Street, a dive bar run by Jeff and Noel Brennan and about which we’ve written here previously at length. By virtue of its catholic booking policy, The Underground – a host with the least – found itself at the crest of a wave of quality new Irish music from 1985 until 1990. The spirit of that flush is captured on a six-cut live album recorded there over consecutive nights in September 1985. ‘Live at the Underground’ – of which only a couple of hundred copies were ever produced – was available in select outlets and also from behind the bar, depending on Jeff’s humour. It features live work-outs from a number of callow groups and performers from across Dublin: A House, The Stars of Heaven and Something Happens most prominently.
Like ‘Kaught at the Kampus’, a live album recorded at the UCC-run Downtown Kampus in the Arcadia Ballroom in Cork in 1980 and from which the Underground elpee takes no little inspiration, it was produced primarily as a calling card for the venue and because it was a fun thing to do. Through the looking glass of Irish entertainment history, both records are now more fondly regarded than was the case at the time, when they were seen as quirky curiosities conceived in the d-i-y spirit of the period. But decades on, both ‘Kaught at the Kampus’ and ‘Live at the Underground’ hint at the raw, unvarnished promise of a variety of emerging Irish outfits, of which Something Happens were one of the least complicated and most endearing.
Fronted by Tom Dunne and also including guitarist Ray Harman, and Alan Byrne and Eamonn Ryan on bass and drums respectively, they were quickly taken to the bosom of the Dublin-based media, from where they were lavishly garlanded. Managed by a one-time Hot Press writer, Conor O’Mahony, they were as affable and comfortable in in front of cameras and microphones as they were on stage or in studio. It isn’t at all surprising that all four members of the band have gone on to enjoy subsequent careers in various aspects of the domestic entertainment sector. Another then-contributor to Hot Press, designer Arthur Mathews, conceived the band’s cheery, cartoon-styled logo and, in their paisley shirts and wild hair, Something Happens were here to have a good time all of the time. To this end, one of the band’s first major-label issues, 1988’s ‘I Know Ray Harman’, was a live seven-tracker recorded at McGonagle’s on Dublin’s South Anne Street, a record that even now honks of gritty guitars, smoke and sweat.
Something Happens took their craft very seriously but, like The Frank and Walters, with whom they’ve long enjoyed a far closer relationship than one might think, they were great fun with it. And unlike many of their peers, Something Happens had the goods to support the lofty claims made on their behalf: their first single, ‘Burn Clear’ – backed by another of their best songs, ‘Shoulder High’ – was as impressive a debut as anything issued in Ireland during the 1980s. They were prodigious outputters moulded in the classic, guitar-jangling ethos that defined what we once called the ‘paisley underground’, and they played powerfully and hard. Their long sets were off-set with covers that reflected a clear grasp of pop’s primary aesthetics and a wide breadth of cultural reference and, at their peak, they were a formidable unit.
Connolly’s of Leap is another in that list of small venues off of Ireland’s beaten tracks whose reputation precedes it: its history of live music and performance stretches back to the 1950s. But it wasn’t until the late Paddy McNicholl, a Portrush-born musician and sound engineer, married into the Connolly family and re-located to West Cork in the 1980s that the venue began to generate notices for itself as an essential attraction. During what was a particularly vibrant period for live Irish rock music – in which the most compelling new music on the island was emerging from outside of Dublin – Connolly’s, from tentative beginnings, became a regular stop-off for touring groups of all shapes and hues. It was easy to see why.
Apart from its setting on the Leap, Glandore and Union Hall axis, musicians and performers were always assured a warm and respectful welcome – and a decent live sound – at Connolly’s. Live shows there seldom, if ever, made economic sense, but that was never the point. In places like Leap, Tullamore, Kilkenny, Sligo, Dundalk and Shinrone – and through the good offices of promoters like John Cleere, Tom Stapleton and Paddy McNicholl – numerous Irish performers worked-up new material, cleansed their souls and found receptive and knowledgeable audiences who’d rarely, if ever, breach confidences. What went down in Connollys always tended to stay there.
Live popular music in West Cork has a long and colourful history and there is a specific piece to be compiled here about that. But by way of a loose overview, one can point firstly to De Barras in Clonakilty, a back-room in a terrific, main-street boozer, that enjoys several claims to fame. Not least of all that it hosted the first ever live show by The Frank and Walters in October, 1989. The Franks, like several other emerging notables, would also fetch up the odd time in Kinsale, and those adventures are recalled teasingly in a series of references in the Cork fanzine archive from the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Levis’s in Ballydehob is easily one of the most physically beguiling live venues in the country and it’s where God’s own work continues apace, far from the maddening crowds. And often in the face, quite literally, of unsuspecting pint-suppers. Fifteen miles out the road, Dublin mod band, The Vipers, infamously played a zesty live show at a youth club in Drimoleague in April, 1978, after which a row broke out between rival factions from Skibbereen and Bantry. The venerable West Cork-born film-maker, Pat Collins, recalls how this unseemly to-do prompted the local parish priest to put a halt to live music shows in the town. A fatwa that remained in place for eighteen months, until such time as Rocky De Valera and the Gravediggers braved West Cork’s gang culture and, more intimidatingly, the wrath of the cloth, to play there in the summer of 1980. And on a personal note, I’m still traumatised by a[nother] spectacular Into Paradise calamity in the sticks during the early 1990s when we attracted less than twenty unsuspecting punters to see us during festival week in Castletownbere. In a hotel function room across the road that night, Zig, Zag and Ray D’Arcy were headlining a show at the same time at which the audience was so large it spilled out onto the street.
The late American rocker, Meat Loaf, famously played at a community centre in Dunmanway during an ill-fated and scarcely believable live tour of Ireland in the 1980s. And I remember seeing the Kilkenny-founded pub-rockers, Tweed, perform during the Union Hall festival in the very early 1980s and being utterly unimpressed by them for the simple reason that they sounded nothing like Gary Numan or ELO. While on another level entirely, a series of quietly remarkable live music and literary performances took place at Liss Ard, a sprawling country estate [aren’t they all ?] on the road from Leap into Skibbereen during the late 1990s. Over several years, the German-born husband-and-wife team who ran the demesne attracted an incredible cast of global names to West Cork and pulled unique performances at strategic locations all over Liss Ard from the likes of Nick Cave, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Michael Stipe and David Gray. That series – which was briefly re-activated by the late promoter, John Reynolds, in 2012 – is covered in a longer piece here.
I’m not sure if Something Happens ever made the same impression on the cultural elites as the cast of those who performed at Liss Ard, but we can say for certain that, like their contemporaries, A House, they left behind a fine body of work. This includes five studio albums, a live mini-album, a last album that was drastically re-built and re-released internationally and an assortment of other odds, ends and covers. They got better and braver the older they became and their best elpees – to these ears, at least – are those they made with their backs to the wall.
Although best-known for their second studio elpee, ‘Stuck Together With God’s Glue’ – the release of which, in 1990, was covered by the Irish media with the same gusto with which it dealt with the death of Eamon de Valera – the material that followed it is far more interesting. 1992’s ‘Bedlam A Go-Go’, produced by John Porter, features ‘The Crystal Ballroom’, the band’s paean to the old McGonagle’s venue on South Anne Street in Dublin, a one-time ballroom where ‘I Know Ray Harman’ was committed to tape years previously. ‘Fellow Feeling’ is magnificent, one of the group’s best and most introspective cuts, while elsewhere, ‘Select’, ‘It’s Strange, Believe Me’ and ‘Diane On The Cross’ are the band at it’s filthiest. The standout, though, is the considered first single lifted from it, ‘Daisyhead’, a fact not lost on Barbara Ellen, the estimable critic, who decorated it from the pages of New Musical Express.
1994’s ‘Planet Fabulous’ was later re-cycled and re-formatted as ‘Alan, Elvis and God’ and was issued independently after the band lost its long-standing deal with Virgin Records. That album contains a slew of the band’s best material – ‘CC Incidentally’, ‘These Are Not My Friends’, ‘Time Stands Still’ and the mighty lead, ‘Are You My Girl’. The lo-fi video for which was directed by Eamonn Crudden and features the band dressed in long velvet coats on bikes, a pony-tailed Tom Dunne in a Ryan Giggs t-shirt and a series of tracking shots that were recorded from the boot of an old beater down on the South Wall in Dublin. Needless to say that the ‘No Disco’ series hoovered it up.
And therein lies its own story. By 1994, Something Happens had been an active concern for a decade, during which they’d made the early running and led the way for emerging Irish popular music. But the likes of Therapy?, The Frank and Walters, The Sultans of Ping and even a nascent Divine Comedy had now started to supersede them where it mattered more: Britain. The British music press had belatedly come to Something Happens but not before the bean-counters at Virgin had started to question their bang-to-buck ratio. For a band so feted in Ireland, the more influential trade papers in Britain had typically filed them – wrongly, to my mind – under perspiration rather than inspiration. And in America, where they’d long been hopeful of a breakthrough in the spirit of The Smithereens – another band with whom they had much in common – they’d just been over-taken by the surprise emergence of The Cranberries.
This was one of the points I was trying to make in that Melody Maker review. Listing them in a roll of local honour alongside The Blades and The Radiators, I described the band’s first two elpees as ‘criminally forgotten’ while observing that Something Happens were waving, not drowning. I wondered, in the same breath, if my colleagues on the British music press were unfairly assessing them in broad strokes ? Confusing them, perhaps, with the far lesser slew of Irish bands who’d also landed major deals and who, typically, were afforded twelve months of label support, were bought onto a couple of tours, made a classy video or two and were promptly dropped after a year-and-a-half.
In Leap, meanwhile, Something Happens were going at it as furiously as usual. Among the bank of fresher material, ‘Diane On The Cross’, ‘The Penny Drops’ and the mighty ‘Crystal Ballroom’ were all given decent work-outs, while ‘Burn Clear’ had been consigned to history. A sign, perhaps, that the band was moving on.
‘They play like they want to, like they actually enjoy this’, I concluded in my dispatch from Connolly’s: at that stage, I’d seen far too many constipated young Irish bands who, although dripping in potential, were way too nervy and po-faced. In that respect, I felt that Something Happens were a breed apart and that, even after ten good years at the stump, there was still a dash about them that was unusually attractive.
Thirty years on, that scent has been well and truly distilled, but the band remains intact and, the odd time, ventures out with the same verve and gusto as it did when they were kings. In a different corner of a different kitchen, there’s something faintly reassuring about such trifles.