Radio: From the first days of disco to last orders at Copper Face Jacks

Review: ‘From Dance Hall Days to Boogie Nights’, Will Leahy’s documentary on Irish nightclubs, is more interested in groping in the shadows than dancing in the dark, but it’s still diverting

Photograph: Dennis Hallinan/Jupiter/Getty

Photograph: Dennis Hallinan/Jupiter/Getty

 

Another year, another round of auspicious anniversaries, whether we want it or not. One might think that 2015 would be relatively light on commemoration opportunities, sandwiched as it is between 2014, with its Great War memorials, and the big kahuna of 2016, the centenary of the Easter Rising and the Somme. But the year isn’t even a day old and already there’s a documentary remembering a landmark date that irrevocably changed the fabric of Irish life.

Mercifully, the events recounted in From Dance Hall Days to Boogie Nights (RTÉ Radio 1, New Year’s Day) don’t feature people slaughtering each other in the name of national pride but, rather, revolve around another primal activity, that of trying to couple with a fellow human being. Subtitled 50 Years of the Irish Disco, the documentary, by the 2FM presenter Will Leahy, charts the story of the country’s nightclubs and those who ran them. But the underlying theme is how such venues thrived because they provided the chance for some groping in the dark.

This seems particularly true of the earliest Irish discos, from the mid 1960s, when the desire for a more happening alternative to the showband circuit saw a few enterprising teens hiring sundry basements and tennis clubs, where they would spin the latest hits from British and American acts.

One of the pioneers of that era, Michael McNamara – aka Micky Mac – recalls ending his sets by urging his audience to “be sexy”, an act that, predictably, attracted the ire of local clerics. That McNamara went on to have a fruitful broadcasting career underlines how even then the influence of the church was waning in the face of rising youth culture.

The ramshackle but exciting atmosphere of the time is vividly evoked: despite the lack of specialist audio equipment or full bars, contributors all mention how they felt part of a wider revolution. Soon, however, the revolution had been monitised. By the 1970s, discos had moved to hotel bars, resulting in establishments with memorable names such as Tamango, Zhivago and Fernando’s, which now call to mind a heady ambience of polyester flares, cheap cologne and rounds of Babycham.

Things got even more naff in the 1980s, when VIP-obsessed venues like the Pink Elephant, in Dublin, came to the fore. Leahy adopts an ironic tone as he talks about the decade’s “aura of sophistication”, underlined by the preference of Robbie Fox, the Pink Elephant manager, for the supposedly more exclusive-sounding term “nightclub” over the word “disco”.

Leahy’s focus on the social aspect of the Irish disco yields some memorable vignettes, not least about the terrible Stardust fire of 1981, which left 48 Dublin revellers dead. But it means too little attention is paid to the music, which at least some people surely came along to hear. This oversight is particularly glaring when attention shifts to the dance-music boom of the early 1990s, when the sounds were the primary draw; one would like to have heard more from contributors such as the DJ Aoife Nic Canna. To his credit, Leahy avoids sensationalising the drug aspect of the scene then.

But his cheerily upbeat and unapologetically mainstream approach overlooks the important communal role played by venues such as the Hirschfeld Centre in the otherwise marginalised gay community during the 1980s. It’s telling that the documentary instead closes with a visit to Copper Face Jacks, the Dublin club more noted for its hormone-addled (and stridently heterosexual) clientele than its discerning music policy. Even so, Leahy’s programme spins a diverting tale, illuminating a strangely overlooked aspect of our recent past and reminding us that Irish history need not always be grim.

 

The Sometime travel presenter Kathryn Thomas undertakes an unusual journey on Music Passport: From the Cloisters (RTÉ Radio 1, Tuesday) as she travels around Irish religious orders to discover the importance of music in their lives. It’s an intriguing but vague brief, resulting in a programme that sounds as if it never really knows its purpose, right from its irritatingly chirpy opening gambit.

Twenty fourteen “was the year where pop music and religion took each other by the hand and walked a path, reaching the heavenly heights of viral fame”, Thomas gushes, citing “mould-breaking” clerics such as the singing priest (and YouTube sensation) Fr Ray Kelly. “What talent lies hidden in the cloisters around the country?” she wonders. What follows is not a priestly version of The X Factor but an uneven travelogue.

From the hymns of the Redemptoristine nuns at St Alphonsus monastery to the Gregorian chants of the Benedictine monks at Glenstal Abbey, Thomas’s guests all say music means a lot to them. But for the most part there’s little sense or explanation of why that should be so. The most arresting segments instead concern the spiritual journey made by some on the way to taking holy orders, or the characterisation by Mark Patrick Hederman, the abbot of Glenstal, of old, Catholic-dominated Ireland as a “totalitarian state”. Either way, the musical element often ends up relegated to a pleasant backdrop.

Despite its promising premise, the end product is rather flat. Maybe Thomas should have taken her cloistered subjects to a disco.

Moment of the Week: The vinyl frontier
New Year’s Day is illuminated by a memorable segment at the end of The Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk). Billy O Hanluain’s radio essay Needle in the Groove chronicles his lifelong obsession with vinyl records, the original medium to wrestle “music and song from the clutches of time and silence”.

O Hanluain’s recollections of frantically searching second-hand record stores for old jazz LPs will strike a chord with anyone with a similar habit: such music fans call themselves vinyl junkies with good reason. Overall, O Hanluain uses one stubbornly durable audio medium to pay tribute to another.

radioreview@irishtimes.com

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