House music is a bit like Marmite. The temptation is to bracket all electronic music (or EDM to give it’s current incarnation) with the distasteful “Rave” tag. Or to treat it with disdain prior to investigation. Of course Rave Culture (which in itself is a bit of a loose, reductive term) has sides to it that are fair game for parody. And granted, there are a lot of bad records, perhaps gathering dust, in the attic lofts of middle-aged vinyl-junkies.
In fact, when approaching work on Deep, I wondered, was there any other way for an audience to swallow the subject, other than sending-up the faded glow sticks and defunct whistles? Or, to take a tack with the other generally accepted wisdom: a tabloid-like, demonising of the time. (The latter, of course, only fuelled the youth generation of the early 1990s on further. An infamous article at the time of Sweat@ Sir Henry's inception has manager Sean O'Neil holding his hands up to a reporter, trying to reason: "I'm not Gerry Adams. ")
But I resolved, for better or worse, this was my generation’s time. Perhaps an approaching 25th anniversary of Sweat’s opening (1988-2013) made it timely to look back. But, more pressingly, I had an instinct that the scene had neither been as glorious as the nostalgics would have it, nor as dreadful as it had been represented by the damning of the times. The irony of Ireland’s take on the house music phenomenon facing a wave of prejudice was not lost on me, so I was convinced it deserved revisiting.
So I started digging.
At what stage does any established music scene, doo-wop or punk, say, go from relevant to passed-it, to retro… to accepted into the annals of music history? When did the first Summer of Love at Haight/Ashbury go from rebellious to disillusioned, to trite to now having a glare of romance attached to it? A generation who grew up in the punk era, I’m sure, are going to see their time as the time... much to the disparagement of the prog-rockers.
In trying to see passed the given cliches, I discovered deep house, originating in Chicago, was following a clear line through from jazz, soul, disco (the godfather of house Frankie Knuckles, who died this year, called it "disco's revenge") and was pretty much the mothership for electronic music as we know it today.
But more pertinently maybe, the scene’s much maligned, seemingly cheap, overblown sentiments of an all-embracing utopian equality, had a genuine political agenda of good will. It stemmed from a reaction to the homophobic, racist outpouring against disco in the late 1970s; the common way of putting it was that disco never died. It was just forced underground and found a new voice in house music. Much like Gospel music, for the disenfranchised it was seen as an alternate route to a kind of spirituality, and as it travelled across the Atlantic it was welcomed as a timely anti-Thatcherite counter-culture in the UK.
Sir Henry’s, as a venue which well predated the 1990s, had a breadth of generations flowing through the doors. Rock fans through to punk, post-punks and goths caught gigs from international acts, as well as a wealth of Cork bands (all of which are catalogued for the Sir Henrys 2014 exhibition at the Boole Library in UCC). The club hosted the emergence of Cork bands The Sultans of Ping, The Frank & Walters, but also famously saw a very early Nirvana warming up for Sonic Youth, a gig which half the city have since claimed to be at.
In the UK there was a crossover between the emerging indie acts, particularly in Manchester (housing arguably the UK’s best house club, the Hacienda). It can be argued that without house there would have been no New Order, no Happy Mondays. Sweat@ Sir Henry’s was, in some ways, Ireland’s answer to what was emerging at the Hacienda. Perhaps with a similar second-city syndrome, and in true Cork style, Sweat was very much ploughing it’s own furrow.
Corkonian self-aggrandising aside, Ireland's first house music club was for a good deal of the 1990s the best place to be on the island on a Saturday night. During the 1990s it built up a huge international reputation. As with any club, it had a dark, vibrant, sometimes violent side to it, but Henry's was in the main somewhere booming with communal joy. In an era when Bishop Casey marked the beginnings of far more shocking church scandals, Albert Reynolds waved in a post-Haughey era, unemployment was at a record high (with Cork, worst effected) I was posing the question: were the Sweat heads, consciously or no, reacting with a counter-culture they could call their own?
Encapsulating the story involved interviewing the clubs DJs, managers and die-hard punters (some of this footage is part of the design of the show). Deep is part-fiction, part-documentary.
The play follows the life of Larry Lehane, dancing in the footsteps of his older brother, attempting to fathom the ups and downs, the contradictions, comic and tragic, of personal, familial and societal change. It's a story of generations spanning the history of the club, exploring the social backdrop of our recent history. In a society ever more disillusioned with institutions, Henry's was a place that provided an unprejudiced cross-section of class, race, sex, creed - in a time when this was much harder to imagine.
Just as much as the acid-house scene was demonised and vilified by the tabloids, it become a way of life, a religion, for a whole generation joining the “Club”. The hypocrisy of a drink culture pointing the finger at, essentially another drug culture, became harder to swallow with time.
The key to the breadth and success of Sweat@ Sir Henry’s 13-year residency is not an easy thing to pin down. And to have been there for any of the trajectory of Sweat is something you only really start to appreciate with nostalgic hindsight.
Every generation is going to be more precious about their own time. Every brand of music brings with it a sense of competition and loyalty. But I find it bizarre now to think that I had loyalty to one particular strand of music over any other. I’m as likely now to read Nialler9’s blog, as to listen to LyricFM, and I find it harder to put a hierarchy on any one era’s creativity over another.
In social terms, I remember that at the turn of the millennium, something seemed to sour with the scene and the general mood in the city. House music was becoming cheap and dated in an emerging class, with a growing sense of ambition. There was a wonderful dynamic between the front bar (playing deep house) and the back bar (hip-hop) at Sweat. But ironically as the 1990s progressed, the sounds that had spawned a new phenomenon were becoming the soundtrack to a slowly emerging city playing a role in a tall-tale about Progress. (Bristol scene acts such as Tricky and Portishead were becoming the background to blockbusters and dinner parties). Just as urban acts in the US had crossed over and were now dominating the charts, life in the city became more about super pubs, restaurants, and cleaner clubs. But throughout, refusing to bend, Sweat remained true to the original deep house sound with residents Greg Dowling and Shane Johnson playing at the club for an unprecedented 13 years.
Some say the key to understanding house music is to experience it in a room full of people. As an experiential, communal event between a DJ and a crowd of people, in this particular room, on that particular night. It’s something you can’t create by listening to records alone. The die-hards will tell you the key to the longevity of Sweat was the relationship built between the resident DJs and their audience over many years. Again, this is something that is very hard to imagine happening today.
As Henry’s closed, we were left wondering had we lost our sense of community? Were we falling headlong into the trick of consumerism. The delusion of individuality while becoming more globalised?
Today, house music's legacy is ongoing. There is the more obvious commercial dominance of acts such as Daft Punk at the Grammys, and festival filling EDM acts like Deadamau5. But also alternative acts such as James Blake has more than a string of garage to his bow and a generation are having their formative years to the soundtrack of Disclosure and London Grammar.
Deep the show doesn’t take itself as seriously as all of the above. Larry Lehane’s trajectory brings laughter and tears in equal measure. But the hope is that the play gives a new perspective on the generally accepted view of the 1990s.
This is the story of an era told through the personal journey of a vinyl junkie who, at 35, is turning the tables on the peaks and troughs of two decades, from the rise of acid house to the euro changeover.
Sweat slowed to a stop at the end of 2001 just as the euro replaced the punt and those who pointed a righteous finger at the club are buying into another type of excess, a new kind of Boom. As Cork’s 1980s emigration generation reflect on following the beat in perfect time for a music revolution, we’re left wondering where the current generation’s counterculture is going to spring from.
Deep is at the Galway International Arts Festival until Saturday, then tours to Kilkenny Arts Festival (Aug 9-10, 13-17), The Dock, Leitrim (Oct 14), Half Moon Theatre, Cork (Oct 17-18) and Riverbank Arts Centre, Kildare (Oct 25)