Keeping it Kelly
The Kelly Family’s Celtic folk-pop and vagabond image won them a cult following – and not a little derision. A decade after the band broke up, the siblings say their American, Irish and German roots make them feel at home everywhere and nowhere
Success came calling a second time with the catchy pop ballad An Angel from the album Over The Hump, which sold more than two million copies – including a few in Ireland.
The Kelly Family struck gold in the Benelux countries, Scandinavia and, above all, Germany with their music but also an image that married alternative and traditional lifestyles. Their Celtic-influenced costumes and double-decker tour bus pushed against the tide in Germany’s materialist 1990s and chimed with the growing environmental movement. Their energetic, infectiously positive performances matched an image many Germans had in their head of the large, happy Irish family.
The bohemian image was not contrived, insists Patricia Kelly (41), but a reflection of their artistic lifestyle. “I remember we got a lot of letters from people saying we brought entire families together – children, parents, grandparents. We presented an intact family in a society where one in two are divorced.”
Record deals and sold-out tours followed but the Kellys kept everything in the family, from copyright and bookings to promotion and money matters.
However, the long road to overnight success led to years of over-exposure, where bodyguards and hysterical fans were the new norm. In an ill-fated attempt to guard their privacy, the family traded in their double-decker bus and houseboat for a castle near Bonn. Instead of privacy, further negative headlines resulted as young fans camped in the woods outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of their idols.
Worse was to come when the clean-cut Kellys found themselves facing allegations of tax evasion and of pocketing money collected at concerts for Aids research.
For years their passionate German fans and mocking critics had held each other in check, but the scales began to tip against them. Der Spiegel dubbed them a “singing second-hand clothes collection”, and Die Zeit drew unflattering parallels between the Kellys and the “family” of cult leader and murderer Charles Manson. “He, too, had enough of modern America . . . toured around in a bus, made music and waited for a breakthrough,” it noted in 1996.
Though a shock for the family, Kathy admits today that some criticisms were justified. Their tax affairs were a mess but were eventually sorted, at great expense. The Aids-donation allegations, however, were found to be groundless.
By the time Daniel Kelly died in 2002 the band was showing signs of serious strain. The siblings went their separate ways and, freed from the pressures of touring, performing and living together, began to admit publicly what many had suspected for some time: that Daniel Kelly had a tyrannical, controlling streak.
The most outspoken sibling, Jimmy, criticised his father for keeping his children out of formal education in favour of a what he called a “Huckleberry Finn” childhood.He has gone gone back to his roots as a street musician – both for artistic gain and out of financial necessity.
“Though we earned a fortune as the Kelly Family in the 1990s, I had almost nothing by the end,” he said last year. “From that time I have only a table and I don’t even own that outright.”
Maite agrees that the image they projected in public was not always reflected at home, where her father imposed a mixture of strict rules and absolute freedom. “He didn’t plan it, but there was a certain isolation in the kind of life we had,” she says. “On the other hand he gave us all a grounding, none of us have needed nose operations like the Jacksons.”