Brian Reddin’s recent television documentary, ‘How Ireland Rocked the ‘80s’, was a fond, archive-driven spin through the decade in which emerging new groups could be routinely found in every townland and village of the country. For the record, I commissioned ‘How Ireland Rocked the ‘80s’ for RTÉ and was the editorial representative across it.
This period, and several of the most prominent Irish groups that emerged during it, is covered in detail in a variety of different pieces here. But although U2’s success certainly trained a powerful spotlight on the country – and the promise of more gold in the hills – popular music in Ireland had already been on a slow boil for years.
The decision by Donogh O’Malley and the Fianna Fáil government to introduce free secondary school education for all Irish children in 1966, is rightly marked as a pivotal chapter in the development of modern Irish society. One of the obvious consequences of that decision was an increase in the number of young men and women staying in education longer, some of them moving onwards into universities and colleges from the early 1970s onwards.
Kilkenny-born Páraic Boran was one of them. In the mid-1970s, he became the first full-time Entertainments Officer in an Irish third-level institution when he took on that role in what was then University College Galway. Boran is a contemporary of Garry Hynes, the theatre director and co-founder of the Druid Theatre Company, and Ollie Jennings, the long-time Sawdoctors manager and one of those who started the Galway Arts Festival. Páraic is arguably best known as one of the country’s leading production and site managers and also represented The Stunning for many years.
As an informal live entertainments network took root in Ireland’s universities, the likes of Dave Kavanagh, Billy McGrath and others were busy doing God’s own work in UCD. Kavanagh’s Roadrunner agency, which acted for a nascent U2 and which he built up into a serious operation, has its roots in that colleges circuit. Up north, Eamonn McCann, who went on to establish MCD Concerts with Denis Desmond in 1980, began his career in live promotion as an Entertainments Officer at Queen’s University in Belfast years previously.
In Cork, meanwhile, Elvera Butler’s influence extended far beyond the Downtown Kampus series she helmed for UCC and that ran at the Arcadia Ballroom between 1978 and 1981. Those exploits on the southern circuit have been covered in no little detail but far less so the label she founded, Reekus Records, which gave oxygen to several fledgling Irish groups. The Blades, most notably.
Paul Cleary, the band’s leader and heartbeat, was one of a number of contributors to ‘How Ireland Rocked the ‘80s and he knows as well as anyone about the vitality on that colleges circuit. One of the finest songwriters to have emerged from the punk rock years here, Paul and his band were regular turns at third-level shows. Some of the most memorable political history lectures I attended during my own college years were delivered by Cleary from the stages of Sir Henrys on South Main Street and The Country Club up in Montenotte. And as anyone who’s witnessed The Blades’ recent end-of-year appearances in Dublin will attest, the passing of time hasn’t blunted any of his swagger or keen political sensibilities.
Beyond the music, Paul also gave great, articulate copy and didn’t suffer fools. Little wonder that he was the local flavour of choice for many music writers, critics and radio and television producers during the 1980s. And no more so than in 1986 when he declined an offer to participate at Self Aid, an ambitious, day-long Telethon-style even that took place at the RDS showgrounds in Dublin.
Self Aid was the brainchild of a pair of hip gun-slingers from RTÉ, Tony Boland and Niall Mathews, who designed a live music marathon to generate a greater awareness of the extent of Ireland’s unemployment crisis and to maybe contribute solutions to it. The unemployment rate in Ireland in January, 1985, was close to 17% of the eligible workforce and almost one in every four men and women under the age of 25 was jobless. Promoted by Jim Aiken, the éminence grise of Irish live entertainment, and under-pinned by U2’s powerful support system, Self Aid featured a mighty line-up of the great, the good and Brush Shiels. It is the only live event in Irish music history to feature U2, Van Morrison, Rory Gallagher and The Boomtown Rats on the same bill.
The Blades opted not to play at Self Aid. Like the journalist and writer, Eamonn McCann, Cleary believed that Ireland’s unemployment problem was a matter for the government to resolve and that Self Aid was just a patronising and ill-judged, if well-meaning initiative. ‘The title, Self Aid, had that connotation’, Cleary told ‘How Ireland Rocked The ‘80s’, ‘that if you really wanted a job, you can do it yourself’. So I didn’t like the smell of it’.
At a remove of almost forty years, I’d suggest that Self Aid is remembered far more for the live show that took place at the RDS in Dublin on May 17, 1986, and for the cracking sets played there by Blue In Heaven, U2, Elvis Costello, Rory Gallagher and Van Morrison, than it is for the debate that took place around it. Or, indeed, for some of the television coverage of it which, among other things, featured a walk-on by Ronald McDonald pledging a handful of jobs at the global fast-food franchise. The Blades, meanwhile, were one of a number of local outfits who played a ‘Rock The System’ benefit at Dublin’s Liberty Hall later that year instead.
Many of Paul Cleary’s best-known songs deal with the complicated politics of the heart but themes of inequality, alienation, repression and stagnation course through much of that material too, often subtly and often not so much. The Blades are contemporaries of U2 and are often presented as part of a convenient binary with the emerging Northside outfit that existed far more in theory than in reality. But if U2 sought out the big music and were already tending towards broad, cinematic imagery, Cleary’s material stayed closer to home and the routine drama of local kitchens. He was a sussed and reflective social commentator and, as such, became a go-to for various fund-raisers, campaigners and left-leaning causes.
So it was on that basis, you’d think, that he was asked to write ‘Show Some Concern’, a one-off single that was recorded and released in March, 1985 by The Concerned, an assembly of heads from the ranks of the local entertainment circus. Four months after Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ broke all manner of sales records in Britain, the proceeds raised by ‘Show Some Concern’ went to the Dublin-based relief-agency, Concern, a humanitarian aid body founded in 1968 in response to a famine outbreak in Nigeria. ‘We’re here to make a record for starving people’, Cleary told the RTÉ crew dispatched to Windmill Lane studios in Dublin to cover the making of the single.
‘Show Some Concern’ was an idea cooked up by the late broadcaster, Gerry Ryan and Mark Venner, the British-born scriptwriter who, for many years, cut a distinctive dash around the Dublin entertainment beat: he managed The Blades at one point but wore many hats. It was recorded and refined over the course of a single weekend, during which a pick-and-mix of what was then Ireland’s showbiz elite fetched up to lend their support and their voices. The group-chorus featured disc jockeys like Dave Fanning, Barry Lang, Larry Gogan and Ryan himself, broadcasters Pat Kenny and David Heffernan – who arrived for the session with his 6-month-old son, Simon – as well as a clatter of the country’s best vocalists and musicians.
Christy Moore, Twink, Red Hurley, Ray Lynam, Maura O’Connell, Maxi, Leslie Dowdall and Johnny Duhan will resonate with those of a particular vintage while members of the anorak’s honours class may be able to place Jenny Newman from Toy With Rhythm, the lads from Those Nervous Animals and Mouse McHugh, from the Tuam band, Too Much For The Whiteman.
Produced by Bill Whelan and engineered by Brian Masterson, ‘Show Some Concern’ was issued and distributed by what was then CBS Records [now Sony Music] and went straight to the top of the Irish charts, where it resided for three weeks. Generating, you’d think, as much local awareness of the plight in what was then referred to as ‘The Third World’ as these undertakings could hope.
The song itself is a two-tier confection, a collision of a pair of distinctive styles, with the producer putting a vinaigrette-du-chef on what was a jagged, guitar-led riff-song, one of Cleary’s signature dishes. It opens like one of Bill Whelan’s Eurovision arrangements, a rumble of drums from Paul McAteer before a big sax solo from Carl Geraghty under which a cowbell pops away until Cleary takes the tune into less cluttered, ska-strummed territory with the first line. ‘Things don’t change, they stay the same’, he sings. After which the song is carried line-by-line by a litany of vocalists who land it into a big, swaying gang-chorus: ‘It’s not too late to learn. Show some concern’.
Although no more than a curious footnote in the broader history of pop music in Ireland during the 1980s, ‘Show Some Concern’ points to a number of interesting avenues. At a remove of almost forty years, and six years after the launch of Ireland’s first national pop music station, RTÉ Radio 2, the session is richly infused by the cult of the disc jockey. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, many of Ireland’s frontline dee-jays enjoyed considerable national profiles and were handsomely rewarded for the numerous live shows they did in discos, dance halls and community centres all over the country. No job ever too big or too small, they turned up everywhere, particularly to those locations in which television cameras were present.
Sixty-odd years after the foundation of the Irish state, and with women largely absent from the standard historiography, a number of excellent female vocalists make prominent contributions, from the twin leads from Toy With Rhythm to the better-known Maura O’Connell, Maxi, Gay Woods, Linda Martin and Twink. ‘Show Some Concern’ also reminds one – if reminding were required – of just how formidable and flexible a singer Flo McSweeney is. And a reminder too of just how music gave a public platform to Irish women at a time in our recent history when many in power did their best to keep them silent.
Driving the entire thing from his seat behind the mixing desk – and in the spirit of George Martin, replete in a collar-and-tie – was Bill Whelan, one of the most significant figures in the history of modern Irish music and culture. Best-known as the writer of the ‘Riverdance’ suite, there’s far more meat to Whelan’s long and varied career and, even by the mid-1980s, he’d built up a fine body of work. He’d already delivered ‘Timedance’, an ambitious, cross-genre interlude that played during the 1981 Eurovision Song Contest – and from where ‘Riverdance’ has its origins – and was already composing for film and television. He was a noted arranger also, working across a variety of different genres: he famously put manners on Johnny Logan’s 1980 Eurovision winner, ‘What’s Another Year’. Since 1986, he’s also run a music publishing company in partnership with Paul McGuinness, the former U2 manager.
You’d imagine that Bill Whelan’s weekend in Windmill Lane with The Concerned was one of the lesser-taxing assignments of his career: the practical management of so many musicians and disc jockeys in such a confined space, and the various insanity that accompanies that kind of carry-on, was probably his biggest headache. But with a backing band that included the seasoned likes of Noel Eccles, Greg Boland and Paul McAteer, its unlikely that anyone fetched up without drumsticks, or was unable to properly tune-up.
But beyond all else, ‘Show Some Concern’ points yet again to Paul Cleary’s writing smarts. Constrained by the subject matter, and by the necessity to deliver something wide-reaching enough for the vagaries of daytime radio, he was still able to magic up the following:
‘Faith can’t feed and hope can’t last,
where charity is spelt G.U.I.L.T.’.
The youths have a term for that sort of quality.
Ahhh, the memories of ‘Show Some Concern’.
Paul Brady was, still is and always will be a God for what he has achieved for music in Ireland.