Must-hear music in record numbers
IT’S SOMETHING WE, as beneficiaries of the creative process, rarely think about: as the years go by in the course of completing one creative project after another, do artists ever go back and analyse what they created? Or do they just forget about it and start on the next one?
We hear of film-makers and actors who never return to their earlier work for fear of discovering flaws that might haunt them forever. We rarely hear of authors, poets or playwrights who continually revisit or rejig their work. Visual artists have retrospectives every decade or so. But musicians revisit their previous work because they are in the business of entertainment (also known as banging out the hits).
Look at U2: they still play songs in their live set from more than 30 years ago, and they will still be performing the likes of Oneand Where the Streets Have No Nameuntil they retire. Even someone as good as Declan O’Rourke – an unlikely candidate, you’ll agree, for selling out Croke Park in 2016 – will surely be driven into early dementia by having to field requests for Galileo.
In the process of writing 101 Irish Records You Must Listen to Before You Die, I spoke to and e-mailed virtually all the artists in the book – and to friends, relatives and associates of the late Phil Lynott, Rory Gallagher, Seán Ó Riada and Luke Kelly – to ask about their albums.
Some were surprised that I was writing about them. It was so long since they last listened to them, they said, that could barely recall it. Others, such as Terry Sharpe of the Belfast punk band Starjets, were delighted by the attention for a record they toiled over for so long and had been forgotten about by so many. Even people whose names are quite well known asked, “Why that particular album?”
“I can’t really remember much about Stars of Heaven,” the songwriter Stephen Ryan says about his band, one of the most fondly recalled Irish groups of the 1980s. “I haven’t heard those songs in about 25 years.” What does he remember? “We had a lot more fun recording stuff when we knew in our hearts the band was doomed.”
Some musicians don’t have the album. “ The Roads Don’t Love You,” says Gemma Hayes of her 2005 CD, “was released for only three weeks before I was dropped and the album was shelved. I begged to get my album back, but it didn’t happen. Strangely enough, for that reason the album still seems fresh to me, as I never got the chance to exhaust it every night at gigs. I don’t own a copy any more, although I keep meaning to track one down.”
The reasons for not having a copy can be more personal, too, as Nina Hynes explains about her 2002 album, Staros. “My feelings are complicated and are tied up with my ex-manager and label and a sour relationship that developed very soon after the release. I don’t own a copy, and I don’t earn a cent from it. I still love the record, though,” she says. “Staros meant everything to me, but it kind of feels like someone stole my lover and tied him up in a room, blindfolded and gagged, and locked the door.”
OTHER MUSICIANS RECALLtheir albums critically. Cathal Coughlan, the former Microdisney singer and songwriter, says the band’s 1987 album, Crooked Mile, is not nearly as good as other people think it is. “This was Microdisney’s first totally painstaking and scrutinised record. Sadly, I think we made the wrong record. I learned a lot about putting songs across, though mainly for future reference. Sean O’Hagan’s guitar playing at that time was really great – even though the record doesn’t document the best of it. I don’t care for the lyrics. I was ill at ease with being out of poverty for a while, and – infuriatingly, with hindsight – not able to find a way to stretch myself.” The songs, says Coughlan, although produced by Lenny Kaye with “enthusiasm and sophistication”, remained “static”.
Many musicians are less severe – excited, even, about going back years, or decades, to a time in their lives when creative possibilities and personal ambitions seemed limitless.
Of all the replies to my requests to unearth memories, two of the most eloquent came from Neil Hannon, of The Divine Comedy, and Simon Carmody, the former Golden Horde frontman.
“I’m just glad I wrote Liberationwhen I did,” says Hannon of his 1993 album. “I was unfettered by rock’n’roll tradition, unbound by public expectations. The constant references to books and films may be a tad cringeworthy, the voice may be a bit screechy and undeveloped, but I think it’s as accurate a look into the heart of a shy and bookish 22-year-old as you’re ever likely to find.”
Carmody, talking about The Golden Horde’s eponymous debut album, from 1991, recalls the time with heartwarming, infectious fondness. “My impressions of that album are total freedom; if freedom is something to do with self-expression, then I felt free. We did what we wanted but, more importantly, what we loved. To be able to do that was such a gift. Lyricism is as much music as it is words. We certainly loved our music. It meant everything, because it was so much about our lives,” he says.
“I actually haven’t heard the album for many years, but I just listened to two songs on YouTube, and they sounded wonderful. If they came out today by someone else, I’d love them.”
Five of the best Lost Irish albums
GOLDEN HORDE The Golden Horde (1991)
For all its psychedelia-inspired notions, the debut album from Simon Carmody’s band is a brilliantly, seriously streamlined collection of punk-pop tunes that catalogue one man’s giddy descent into the pleasures of girldom and the dangers of self-gratification. Still a banger after all these years.
MARC CARROLL World on a Wire (2005)
After releasing a little-heard solo album and a round-up compilation, the former main man behind the Dublin band Puppy Love Bomb and the London-based Hormones released this perfect collection of tunes that replaced his previously lauded “B” band methodology – Big Star/Beach Boys/Beatles/Byrds/Badfinger – for a piano/strings reflectiveness that wouldn’t seem out of place on a great Neil Young record. People on the scrounge for pre-Christmas gaiety can move swiftly along: this is one of the most melancholy, contemplative and dignified records ever released by an Irish singer-songwriter.
ENGINE ALLEY A Sonic Holiday (1992)
Signed to Mother Records, U2’s one-time helping hand for mostly Irish bands, the Kilkenny band had no expense spared in the making of their debut album: it was produced by Steve Lillywhite, their photographs were taken by Amelia Stein, the graphic designer Steve Averill presided over the style, and the album was recorded at Windmill Lane studios. That the album bombed wasn’t a surprise; the surprise was in the songs. Full of panache and provocation – and, sadly, lost to too many people.
JUNO FALLS Weightless (2007)
The back story of Weightlessis salutary: Myles O’Reilly of Juno Falls signed to Richard Branson’s V2 label just as it was in its death throes. In the label’s wisdom, however, O’Reilly was sent on (fruitless) “creative-thinking” trips to London and Nashville, only to find sanity (of sorts) in a Wicklow recording studio, where, over three months, consumed by attention to detail, O’Reilly created Weightless. The songs on it are exceptional and, in keeping with the title, have an airiness that belies their substance.
OLIVER COLE We Albatri (2010)
So how exactly does an album released just under two years ago get lost? And for what reasons? Difficult questions to answer, for sure, but you’d be well advised to check this one out, as it’s the sound of a fractured personality slowly fusing into good health with the help of music and words. The songs are crackers; they reference, among others, The Beatles, Cheap Trickand Elliott Smith,and there’s a wonderful balance throughout of mellow and melody as Cole faces up to excruciatingly honest displays of self-doubt and self-contempt.
101 Irish Records You Must Listen to Before You Dieis published by Liberties Press. See liberties press.com