Golden boy, forgotten man
From singing ‘Danny Boy’ for tourists to ‘Hold Me Now’ in a TV ad, Johnny Logan’s career has had its ups and (mostly) downs, but Ireland’s forgotten star continues to have a successful career across Europe
HE IS POSSIBLY one of Irish pop music’s most forgotten stars – the guy who smashed Eurovision records with a hat-trick of What’s Another Year(1980), Hold Me Now(1987) and Why Me?(1992, sung by Linda Martin), and whose success in the much derided/admired (according to taste) contest has yet to be bettered.
Perhaps Johnny Logan is forgotten for a reason, though. As we chat in his Co Meath home, Logan (his showbiz name; he was born Sean Sherrard) comes across as someone who wouldn’t bear a grudge against his sworn enemy. Such magnanimity is indicative of a man who, while he doesn’t appear to have a ruthless streak, is nonetheless ambitious, persistent and resilient. Now in his mid-50s, tall and tanned, the passing of time has, inevitably, eroded what Logan remembers as his “model boy cheekbones”. Yet, looking at old magazine photos and promotional images from more than 20 years ago, one can totally understand why he was once regarded as sex on legs.
He was born in Australia – where his father, the Irish tenor Patrick O’Hagan, found significant success – and his family moved back to Ireland in the late 1950s. For a while they lived in Drogheda, Co Louth, where O’Hagan had opened a pub. It was here at the age of 13 that Logan was first taught to play guitar by local musician Eamonn Campbell (now a member of The Dubliners). His early teenage years were spent between Louth, Meath and Dublin, as well as accompanying his father on tours of Australia and New Zealand. When his father returned to Australia, however, Logan had to work for a living.
“I WENT INTO a company called Pearl Electric,” he recalls. “I was one of the electricians that wired Arbour Hill prison, and we did Findlaters in O’Connell Street.” After his 9 to 5 job, Logan spent most evenings gigging with various bands, or appearing in blues/folk clubs – anything to feed his need to sing and perform. His break came in 1976, when he was asked to play the role of Adam in Alan Dee’s rock musical Adam & Eve(Annie Kavanagh played Eve, Colm Wilkinson the Devil).
“They were looking for someone young, someone good-looking, a Mr Nice Guy. I fitted that look, so I went from working on building sites and wiring in Arbour Hill to standing in a swimsuit in Phibsboro’s State Theatre. I was wearing a fig leaf that was stitched on, but because the leaf chafed the legs, invariably I would walk around like John Wayne. And in the second half of the show, when Adam and Eve had discovered their nudity, we had to wear Velcro-tied chamois leather outfits. But I could never get the Velcro strap right, so I spent a while mincing round the stage holding the fold of the outfit at my hip while singing the next song. That was my first entry into musical theatre.”
He was given leave of absence from work in order to fulfill his commitments to the show, but he knew at the end of it that he could never go back. “You kinda know what you’re good at, and I knew the electrician thing wasn’t what I wanted to do. I’d go to work, and I’d be carrying a guitar case in one hand and my toolkit in the other.”
It didn’t take long for Logan to rise up through the ranks of what remains a virtually subterranean period in Irish pop music. From 1976 onwards, while the rest of us were buying NME and listening to The Sex Pistols, the people we then referred to as the “Showband Mafia” were intent on grooming Johnny Logan for stardom. Showband manager Jim Hand took over Logan’s affairs, putting him to work the cabaret shifts in Barry’s Hotel, or as support to a traditional Irish act in The Embankment – “singing Danny Boyfor the tourists,” recalls Logan, “picking up £10-£15”.
Around the late 1970s, however, other management-type figures arrived on the scene and before Logan knew what was happening, his career was being overseen by a music producer/record label owner, Roberto Danova, the Irish showband/record label manager Tommy Hayden, and a young, energetic music biz wannabe called Louis Walsh. In 1980, Logan was offered a song entitled What’s Another Year. Written by Shay Healy, the song was, says Logan, originally offered to Country’n’Irish singer Glen Curtin, but when he passed on the opportunity, the song was remodeled (by Bill Whelan) to suit Logan’s smooth singing style. The rest is Eurovision and Irish pop music history. It is also, however, a period in Logan’s life when his career prospects didn’t take off as might have been expected. Following the euphoria of a Eurovision win and a Number One hit in most European countries, nothing happened.
“Well, Jim had given me to Louis,” says Logan by way of some kind of explanation. “And then, somehow, Tommy Hayden got involved. Tommy and Jim did a deal with Louis that they would split me three ways. I was aware of all of this, but I was in my early 20s, it was my first break, and I didn’t want them to fight with each other. But I didn’t realise the depth of it.” The way Logan tells it, he was signed to Release Records (then co-run by Danova and Michael Clerkin, later manager of Daniel O’Donnell), which leased What’s Another Yearto Tommy Hayden’s Spider Records, which in turn leased the song to Sony Records. Three record companies? Three managers? Even now, Logan seems shell-shocked at such music industry machinations. “The song won and what happened? Six months later I was still singing What’s Another Yeararound Europe, the managers were suing each other, and I knew that I wasn’t a human being any more – I was a business they were fighting over in court. They were turning up at the airports, shouting at each other as I was arriving in with my suitcases. Seriously!
To retain any shred of stability, says Logan, he let go of whatever bitterness he felt regarding the way in which he was treated. “Sometimes, I feel I’ve let it all go, but there are occasions when I realise that the experiences back then still influence decisions I now make. Shay Healy said to me when I won the second Eurovision with Hold Me Nowthat I was great to not to have let the court case stuff affect me. But how could it not have affected me? Like I say, I didn’t realise how deep it had gone.”
THAT PERIOD IN the early 1980s, when Logan was in swift succession the Golden Boy and the Forgotten Man, was followed by more major success: his 1984 Eurovision hit, Terminal 3 (sung by Linda Martin, it came second), his 1987 Eurovision win with his own song, Hold Me Now, and his winning entry in 1992, Why Me?(also performed by Martin). From this point onwards Logan’s career bloomed in Europe. He says he made a decision to base his career in Germany instead of England. “I had to live with the prejudice of winning the Eurovision, and I made that decision based on what I thought would be good for my future.” The move has proven to be a wise one; as the years have passed, with Ireland’s attempts at winning the Eurovision going from bad to worse to plain embarrassing, Logan’s European-based operations have gone from steady to excellent. He has experienced the occasional setback (he freely admits to having had a serious alcohol problem, which he successfully came to terms with over four years ago), but overall you get a strong impression from him that life is indeed very good. And if he ever thought his profile in Ireland had dipped below the public radar, it must surely have been a pleasant surprise to discover that his appearance in a McDonald’s ad a couple of years ago brought him to the attention of a new and younger audience.
“I’m a survivor, but I couldn’t have survived all the things I went through without the love of the people around me. I’ve survived terrible things – physically, emotionally – but at the end of the day, the only thing that makes it worthwhile is that no matter how much success or fame you have, it’s when you look in the mirror it’s just Sean Sherrard looking back and not Johnny Logan.”
Next year is the 30th anniversary of his first Eurovision win; of it he says, “it seems like yesterday”. He is presently considering requests from three countries to write their Eurovision song. Despite what he regards as the prejudice of entering or even winning the contest, he accepts it “would be very hard to write a song for any other country except Ireland.”
As for Ireland’s Eurovision hopes, he thinks the wrong people are involved. “They’re like headless chickens – they know what result they want, but they don’t know how to get there. Successive Irish attempts at putting together the winning structure have put it into such a bad state that we’ve become a joke.
“The best chance Ireland has of winning it again is to take it seriously, and that means putting something into the Eurovision that has a chance of winning. And that requires the country being involved. What the Irish entry in the Eurovision has become is the property of a small group of people. It doesn’t belong to the country anymore, and that, ultimately, is the problem. In order for it to get back to some semblance of respectability, the song has to be representative of Ireland. We have to prove ourselves again, and we can’t presume that just because we’re Irish that everybody loves us. Those days are gone.”
Johnny Logan performs at the Boyne Valley Hotel, Drogheda, Co Louth, Fri Aug 14. Tickets €60 (including three-course dinner and post-gig disco) from 086-2282853.