Songwriter who radiated insight in Irish rock

Philip Chevron: June 17th, 1957-October 8th, 2013

Philip Chevron outside the Project Arts Centre.

Philip Chevron outside the Project Arts Centre.

Sat, Oct 12, 2013, 00:01

Philip Chevron, who has died aged 56, grew up in the Dublin suburb of Santry in the monochrome 1960s with a passion for theatre and music (in particular the works of Brecht and Weil). Harbouring dreams that one day he too would have something to contribute, the young Philip decided his family name of Ryan just wouldn’t do. He thought of the jazz singer Sarah Vaughan - whom he adored - and took the name of her record label - Chevron - as his new surname. Through his musical work with the Radiators from Space and later The Pogues he would go on to become the quiet, unheralded genius of modern Irish music.

Philip Chevron was born in June 1957. His father, also Philip Ryan, was an Abbey actor and director and the author of theatrical biographies. Educated at O’Connell Schools, Chevron found his earliest inspiration in the cabaret singing of Agnes Bernelle whom he heard on radio in 1971. Bernelle introduced him to the works of Brecht and Weil. The two become firm friends when Chevron was just 20. Indeed he felt musically confident enough to produce one of her albums.

But the music that particularly grabbed the teenage Chevron was punk. With Steve Averill and Pete Holidai he formed Ireland’s first punk band of note, the Radiators from Space, and set about introducing the moribund Irish music scene to the short, sharp, shock of the new genre. Their early single Television Screen (one of the first ever punk releases) made an impression, not least on Chevron’s Northside near neighbour Paul Hewson (Bono) who jumped up when he heard its inchoate, ragged beauty on the radio. Bono would later testify that “Phil Chevron was a real inspiration to U2”.

But the Billboard charts and the cover of Rolling Stone were never lodestars for Chevron. At the age of 22 he wrote one of the most important Irish music songs of all time in Song of the Faithful Departed (1979) in which the words of Joyce and O’Casey combined with the tones of Bowie and Iggy Pop to nail the pieties of the land of saints and scholars. The song, on the album Ghostown, was critically lauded but commercially ignored.

Ghostown also included the Chevron composition Kitty Ricketts, which channelled the lyrical sentiments of James Plunkett over a melody line out of Sally Bowles’s Berlin via Tom Waits. But while Geldof and the Boomtown Rats were appearing on Top of the Pops and U2 also beginning to take off , Chevron and The Radiators decided to stop banging their heads against the brick wall of indifference and accepted their dreaded “cult status” lot.

In London in the 1980s he worked in the famous London record shop Rock On - later immortalised in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity - where he befriended Elvis Costello, who was partly responsible for Chevron joining The Pogues in 1984. Back in Dublin in 1988 for a one-off Radiators reunion show, he unveiled a new composition, Under Clery’s Clock. Written about the Dublin landmark where many a courting couple would meet up of an evening, Chevron - in the first real Irish gay love song - sang about meeting his boyfriend – “ … all I want to do is embrace by the street lights like other lovers do without disgrace” – in what was perhaps his best ever vocal delivery.

After the Pogues broke up in the 1990s Chevron moved to Nottingham (he was an ardent Notts Forest fan). Most recently he had been working with journalist Declan Lynch on a musical about the life of an Irish-American boxer.

He was first diagnosed with cancer six years ago. He came through that illness but just a few months ago he posted a message on a Radiators web page saying the cancer had returned and “this time it’s lethal”. Following the diagnosis he told an interviewer: : “I am a gay, Irish, Catholic alcoholic and don’t think I don’t know it.”

Although desperately ill, he came back to Dublin in August to speak at a concert in his honour at the Olympia Theatre, which was attended by many leading writers and musicians and featured many of his glorious compositions played by an all-star cast.

Slight of frame, with an engaging smile and possessed of genuine humility, he would really come alive in a good row about the merits of a book, a film or an album. But he couldn’t just talk good art, he could create it too. He is survived by his mother, Christine, and his sister, Deborah Blacoe.

ENDS