With a terrific sense of timing, Reekus Records has issued a very limited, ultra-rare, buffed-up version of the seminal EP, ‘Kaught at the Kampus’, which was originally released in 1980. The label asked Colm to write some notes to accompany it, and we’re delighted to host his piece here.
The Downtown Kampus enjoys a near-mythical standing in the popular cultural history of Ireland in the 1970s, and especially so in Cork, where it was located. For three-and-a-half years, this student-led enterprise hosted a series of what were often chaotic live rock shows at a sprawling ballroom on the city’s Lower Road. The Kampus was the brainchild of Elvera Butler from Thurles who, having graduated with a degree in Psychology and English, was installed as Entertainments Officer at University College Cork. The first ever live show she advertised in the local press as a Downtown Kampus event took place on 24 November, 1977, when a Dublin-based group, The Memories, played The Cowpuncher’s Ball. On 30 May, 1981, four callow local groups – Belson [sic], Microdisney, Sabre and Prague Over Here – lined up to bring the curtain down on another scarcely-believable chapter in the complicated story of popular music in Cork.
During a decade when the city was light on glamour and lighter again on employment, many of its young found themselves faced with a basic career choice: emigration or the dole ? Overly-dependent on a cluster of traditional industries, Cork could be a grim and dank place: one of its distinguishing features was a pungent odour that was carried up on the wind from the mouth of the harbour and that regularly hung over the heart of the city.
But Cork was a resolute city too and The Downtown Kampus was part of a free-thinking, creative under-belly that, in adversity, found healing, and sometimes opportunity, through music and the written word. To this end, those live shows that ran in The Arcadia became far more than the sum of their parts: The Downtown Kampus was as much of a social service as it was a platform for emerging music in the post-punk years. The Arcadia gave a sub-section of Cork society a glimpse of something more arresting and moderately attractive: it was a cracked window through which one could make out another time, another planet, somewhere out there.
During its short lifetime, The Kampus hosted a wide variety of local, national and international performers, among them UB40, The Beat, John Otway, XTC, The Virgin Prunes, The Cure, The Blades, The Only Ones and The Specials. But it’s for the handful of live appearances made there by a young band from Dublin, U2, that it is best remembered. Except, perhaps, in the minds of local anoraks and alickadoos.
The unfiltered spirit of the venue – which had previously been a lucrative stop-off on Ireland’s showband circuit – is captured on ‘Kaught at the Kampus’, a six-track mini-album recorded live at the Arcadia on 30 August, 1980. Released shortly afterwards on a fledgling imprint, Reekus Records, it was committed to tape in the can-do tenor of the time by a basic mobile studio that had travelled from Belfast for the occasion. The album, of which only a limited number was only ever produced, was never intended for commercial gain: it was for use instead as a four-band calling card for the venue and the scene it represented.
Released after urgent debut albums by The Sex Pistols and The Clash up-turned many of the long-held tenets of the entertainment sector, ‘Kaught at the Kampus’ is a brusque, stubborn and raucous affair that only saw the light of day because it felt like the right thing to do at the time. In that sense, it mirrors the thinking behind the live series at The Downtown Kampus.
Critically, it’s a generational statement piece too, an antithesis to another, better-known album that was also recorded live but in front of – and for – a more settled cohort of music fans: Rory Gallagher’s live double-elpee, ‘Irish Tour, 1974’. The quality of Rory’s playing and the tightness of his touring bands were always among his most distinctive selling points. But in the snotty-nosed spirit of punk rock, ‘Kaught at the Kampus’ shoved a middle finger up to such old-school thinking: in the new world, the shoutier and looser you were, the better.
This is certainly the case with the early Microdisney line-up that contributes a noisy, angular cut, ‘National Anthem’, on which Cathal Coughlan flexes a bit of absurdist lyrical muscle over a jagged, guitar-led workout. Mean Features, a rowdy, unsophisticated four-piece fronted by Mick Lynch and also featuring Liam Heffernan on guitar, pony-up ‘Summer Holidays’, while Urban Blitz, a zesty five-piece whose tentacles later extended far and wide into the Cork rock family tree, are also snared here in their live pomp.
‘Kaught at the Kampus’ is dominated, though, by the formidable shadow cast by Nun Attax, a combustible local delicacy fronted by Finbarr Donnelly, who contribute three typically dissonant cuts. Donnelly, a Belfast-born singer and writer, named after Cork’s patron saint, later led a better-known iteration of the group, Five Go Down To The Sea and, briefly, Beethoven, the first band to record for another London-based, Irish-focused indie, Setanta Records.
Nun Attax – and ‘Kaught at the Kampus’ more broadly – under-score just how disconnected the live music scene in Cork had become from what was accepted as an industry standard elsewhere, and especially in Dublin. Far more than just a convenient binary, it’s a reminder that Cork had distinctly re-purposed punk rock for its own purposes, had plenty of fire in its belly and had access to a different kind of ammo. The breakthrough commercial success in Britain of several local groups a decade later owes much to the Kampus years, on-stage and on record.
In the years since its original release, ‘Kaught at the Kampus’ has acquired a curiousity value that few who were involved in its production could have imagined at the time: with the passing of time, it’s become an important capture of a magic period in the cultural life of Cork city. The sheer cheek of it is admirable, but it’s a record that’s become increasingly eerie of aspect too. It records the three most influential and magnetic frontmen in the history of rock and roll in Cork on the one elpee, caught in their youth, fresh as daisies: Donnelly, Lynch and Coughlan.
All three men died prematurely. Finbarr Donnelly drowned in The Serpentine in London in 1989, Mick Lynch died after an illness in December, 2015 and Cathal Coughlan passed away in May, 2022. But there was a time when they were fleet of foot and irascible, loaded with promise, young princes all. And this was it.
FÓGRA: The re-issued ‘Kaught at the Kampus’ is now available as a very limited vinyl package replete with a free CD and 16-page, A4 fanzine of Kampus memorabilia. The release features six additional cuts: as well as five tracks apiece from Nun Attax and Micro Disney [sic], Mean Features and Urban Blitz also feature. The CD version includes three bonus tracks from the current Cork outfit, Big Boy Foolish, the band comprised of Ricky Dineen and Liam Heffernan, both of whom feature on the original album as members of Nun Attax and Mean Features respectively.