U2 et al: Coming up for Eire

DAVE McCULLOUGH GOES STRICTLY DUBLINWISE AND UNEARTHS A BUNCH OF EXCITING NEW SOUTHERN IRISH ACTS

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THE DICHOTOMY that exists between Northern and Southern Ireland is a strange and jarring one. Travelling south from Belfast you can’t but help noticing the hazy, subtle change of most aspects physical and spiritual which reveals itself in the transition from a louder, snarling land into an altogether more tranquil, withdrawn countryside.

The landscape changes into a sprawling, glorious affair, the pubs (ah, the pubs!) are dimmer and follow their own sets of rules, the people look different and are less given to thinking out loud, the bulk and body of Ireland resting on its limbs like some proud and majestic creature, motionlessly purring across its space of time and violence.

On the shiny wings of an Aer Lingus 737 tin-can, I was last week reminded of the culture shock, floating with side-kick Slattery over the outskirts of Dublin town. Heathrow had taken its customary toll on us: loose-tongued security-men had interrogated us, degraded us with a series of mind-games designed more to reassure the rest of the plane’s passengers that they were conventional and safe compared to their hippy/punk/long-haired/shorthaired victims than to check that the aircraft was indeed secure.

The launching pad of English flights was indeed all noise and frenzy compared to the blank solemnity of Dublin airport, and the gulf of life-style and atmosphere was once again brought to mind. We were in another country, another rock and roll space altogether…

THE AUSTIN A40 that pulled out of Dublin airport some minutes later confirmed the notion. The car was a miracle of mechanical endurance, a sort of pathetic progression from pony and trap, Ireland’s bid to keep up with the modern world, and more to the point, as we later discovered, a bid to make big-city top-cats, McCullough and Slattery feel uncomfortable.

“We wanted to see how you’d react,” the machine’s co-pilot, Bono, told me much later the following day. “We’ve had people from record companies who’ve come over from England and they’ve taken one look at this car and gone ‘Whaaat?’ Don’t worry though, you both passed the test.”

Bono is the lead singer of U2, the most important band to emerge from Ireland since the Boomtown Rats and the main objective of this trip to Dublin in the summer of ’79. U2 are a very special band and part of a romance that flourished long-distance between Dublin and myself ever since their first demo tape was brought to my attention earlier this year.

The tape, recorded in March, was a dazzling account of a band with quite amazing potential. Demos (as ably explained in these pages recently by Zoo-man Dave Balfe) have an annoying habit of falling into narrow, obvious categories these days; for the most part they’re fad-conscious or just plain incompetent.

The U2 tape, however, was different. Here was a band that defied trends, blends or bombast, a band that revealed direction, assurety and downright arrogance, letting you know from the Mickey Mouse confines of a C60 cassette that they had something vital to contribute to the rock and roll of ’79.

The sound was roomy and sharp, the songs, like the opening ‘Another Time, Another Place’ reaching vast, breathtaking climaxes, the music dipping and soaring, taking its roots from everywhere you could imagine but defying direct bonds with past, present or, in the grandiose Bowiean sense, The Future. The Only Ones, Penetration, Banshees, Fall, all were there in the music somewhere but the essence was clearly a new (and when was the last time you heard a genuinely new band?), significant name for the ‘now space’, as it were, of rock and roll present tense.

In the ensuing spring months and into early summer, U2 retained a low profile, leading me to reestablish my ideas of that dichotomy between the British Northern Irish and Southern Irish music scenes wherein Dublin and Southern Ireland remained quietly uninvolved, content only to throw forth the odd Rats, Horslips, Planxty freak.

Then word arrived from U2 to the effect that action was taking place between themselves and assorted mainland record companies, including CBS, and that other bands were now reaching stages of fruition (hard evidence including a remarkable tape from the Virgin Prunes) and could well require my attention.

In the midst of all this Paul McGuinness, manager of U2, had made a pointed remark over the phone; “All that’s missing over here, really, is somebody with the entrepreneur skills of a Good Vibes to set things going. There’s certainly enough talent about.”

As the A40 chugged its way into Dublin and U2 men Bono and Adam enthused over their own music and other bands from the city (“You should see The Atrix while you’re over, now they’re incredible!“) what was happening became clear. In rock and roll terms, Dublin was a city that was growing up, like the U2 lyrics say, ‘from a boy to a man’…

LATER THAT night we arrived and I finally had the pleasure of catching the fabled U2 live. The venue was the Bagott Inn which lives up to its sleazy name with a vengeance. “Tonight’s something of a test night,” Bono explained. “This is the first New Wave type gig this place has put on and if it’s a success then bands might be able to use it regularly.”

Gigs are a scarce commodity in Dublin. In fact, there are none, save the odd fortunate one-nighter at one of the many ‘straighter’ rock venues (ancient Skid Row and Horslips guitarists rool OK, y’understand) or the odd support slot at one of the city’s two or three bigger, ballroom type venues (a band called DC Nien tonight having the unenviable task of warming up an AC/DC audience).

Bands, therefore, are hungry and they must search for gigs, as U2 have done. Their labour is not in vain, either, as the gig this night proves. The band give evidence to their burgeoning popularity in the city by cramming as many bodies into a scantily publicised Hope And Anchor-type gig as is physically (as opposed to legally) possible.

Their set is quite brilliant. It’s an often disarming experience travelling out of London and seeing relatively unknown bands capable of taking on the prima donnas of the Hammersmith Odeon, Marquee and Nashville and wiping the proverbial floor with them (re: Tours and Undertones in the past) and this was yet another such occasion. U2 are total, solid music, naturally intended for the head and for the feet, inculcating meaning and innovation, expressing enough power in communication to knock the unsuspecting listener on his back.

Guitarist David Edge is the most flamboyant player I’ve seen since Stuart Adamson of The Skids (a major influence, as they say) creating a sizeable, unique niche of sound that spreads across U2’s music with scintillating effect, joining together with Larry Mullen’s bass and Adam Clayton’s drums to form what the band constantly seek, namely a wide sound and a big impression.

Front man Bono is a new r’n’r performer. He takes the genre’s tricks of the trade and tries them out on his audience, shifting their opinions and attitudes. In this sense U2 are unashamedly didactic; they attack their audience and hope maybe to leave them at the end of the night feeling shifted or moved in their attitudes.

Bono, like the rest of U2 and The Virgin Prunes, study mime in order “to use up every little ounce of space on stage”. The effect is totally absorbing. You follow Bono with your eyes as he counts on his fingers or runs across stage or spontaneously mimes something that is impenetrable but apposite to the moody, fat rolling sound. At the Bagott the mike broke in front of him. Instead of panicking he used the fluke, calling a kid from the audience down front, thrusting the mike into his upheld right hand and using his right arm, as it were, as a mike stand throughout the song.

And the songs are splendid, inspired impressions of that big sound the band seek, from the Skidsian raunch of ‘Out Of Control’, the analytical power of ‘Twilight’ and ‘Stories For Boys’ or the speedy pop of ‘Boy Girl’, revealing an already established, remarkable songwriting force.

Like The Fall or the Zoo bands or Swell Maps, U2 have thrown the New Wave over their collective shoulders and are now stepping out in the direction of more vital and contemporary expression while instinctively still retaining the clipped muscularity of the ’76 revolution.

In this small space I can but present you with a whisper of the U2 vibe. Suffice to say that a single should be available soon in Ireland on CBS with an album to follow (tentatively titled Boy) and all hell will break loose over the coming months about this marvellous, mystical band. It’s just a thought, but somebody suggested that if the Boomtown Rats were the John the Baptists of Irish r’n’r, then U2 must be…

THE BLADES were supporting U2 at the Baqott that night. It’s all too easy to dismiss the band as surrogate Jam types. Certainly the haircuts, the suits, the three piece format are the same, but below the ridiculous caricature of an image seem to lie the rough nuggets of something very worthwhile. The set is all but perfunctory, a typical youth club affair with the band too nervous and rigid to do anything other than show their wares, race through the songs as quickly as possible and head for home feeling chuffed.

But The Blades contain a central body of rock and roll spirit that drives, them at times, for a second perhaps only, into an inspired force of soul music that rises above the shapely three piece plodding of the rest of the set.

“Mod? I think I’ve heard of it, but we don’t hear much about London over here.” The lead singer, the band’s driving force with a taught, uneasy personality that reminds me of Paul Weller, pleads.

The Blades are unconsciously (and remembering that only great bands happen by accident) the opposite of Mod. They are gauche, full of energy, naivete, guts and good songs. Eric ‘Dreadman’ Fuller recently criticised a Secret Affair gig, saying, “If this is what the kids of today look forward to going to see, then it’s unbelievable…”

Yes, I think Eric would adore The Blades…

THE VIRGIN PRUNES are probably closer to the genius of the (true) Sex Pistols than any band in Britain today. But then that’s only a tiny piece of their essence. The Prunes are art-shock, glam-shock, punk-shock burlesque.

Lead singer Gavin Friday explains: “Sometimes we (Guggi and I) go transvestite on stage. Sometimes we wear suits. We shock, if the audience doesn’t want to listen to us, if they can’t stand what we’re doing, then we tell them to fuck off, we don’t want them near us, go away…”

The Prunes attack an audience with their own sexual inadequacies. They look as if they should be ravaged in front of a punk audience, but instead their sizeable following often acts in contrary fashion, readily protecting the band from would-be tough boy assailants. They once played support to The Clash and the stage was invaded.

“It’s funny,” Gavin muses, “but the punks were quite relaxed while The Clash were on, but they went bananas over us!”

The Prunes share origin, background and fruitful communication with U2, the two bands coalescing in their in their bizarro, therapeutic pastime of an imaginary land called Lypton Village, whereby child-games like cowboys and indians are played in local parks, mime is studied and Lypton Village names are decreed on friends (viz. Gavin Friday is called so because that name reflects the way he looks).

The Prunes’ songs, like ‘Caucasian Walk’ and ‘Grey Light’, sound jagged and powerful, the way Siouxsie would like to sound if she had more inspiration and less ploy. Gavin closes this space with a quote from ‘Art Fuck’; “The Virgin Prunes are a mirror to you. To look in that mirror or turn away is your choice…”

THE ATRIX is a pun and vital to the understanding of the band therein. Their background is uniformly Thespian by nature, and they are important in this brief assessment of Dublin bands in the sense that they are the first of them to bring forth a record, a snappy 45 on the Irish Mulligan label that pairs ‘The Moon Is Puce’ with ‘Wendy’s In Amsterdam’. The band are more unashamedly theatrical than either U2 or Virgin Prunes and have recently been featured on an Irish TV special devoted to the band and in particular their song ‘Circus Tragedy’. The band look old and unlikely in the r’n’r context but their music shakes and burns with vigour and a very literary, very Dublinesque insight and grandeur.

“The Atrix of the psyche, rather than the purely visual, to portray through the music the inner landscapes…” is how keyboardsman Chris Green depicts the band’s very impressionistic music, which has a base not unlike contemporary XTC (only, of course, much better) and identity-springs in John Borrowman’s guitar and vocals and, in particular, the sparkling wit of Chris’s ragged, limbless pianos. Again a band that could startle and upset an English audience with relative ease, The Atrix yes, but most of all watch for the effect.

DC NIEN are, to informed Irish music journalist Bill Graham, a case in point: “You see, the thing about the success of the Rats was that, until then, nobody over here knew how it was done. Nobody knew about actually how you got a record made, how you went about going to England, anything. They showed that anything was possible.”

DC Nien are the first Southern Irish band to take the steps towards putting out their own record on their own label, a single appearing in just over a months’ time as fruits of their DIY effort.

DC Nien are five in number and are a band of the air-age, like their name suggests. They are squat, lonely people, most of them live in north Dublin around the airport, two of them work as gardeners in the daytime, their music is black and doom-laden, but as much a celebration of the nuclear-age as it is its castigation. Reference points are Kraftwerk, Gang Of Four and Human League, hopes for the future apart from the single include designs upon English soil. Their management pushes and provides muscle and they changed into weirdo suits for the photographs, so anything could happen and probably will.

WE WALK up a dark path into a tall, well-lit reception area and ask for Dave Fanning and RTE2. We are shown along another darkened track that leads to a flight of stairs and like beings from a Star Trek outtake we arrive at the panels and heart of a radio programme that is currently pumping out some of the best of Dublin’s burgeoning music scene. Fanning has the precious twelve to two am spot on weekday nights, and with a very Peel-like perception blends the obligatory muzak with some very fine Dublin tapes and demos.

RTE2, moreover, is merely the tip of a large in-tune media iceberg that is currently and rather startlingly giving vent to the new pop music of the land. Fanning was an establishment capture from one of Dublin’s many pirate stations, stations that are still intact and helping the cause of informed programming as well.

Tonight he plays the excellent new Artix single back to back with Van Morrison, while he and colleague Ian Wilson as well as I imagine everyone listening, having a thoroughly spanking good time.

We leave in search of more of ‘that angry land’s thick black brew’, as Loudon Wainwright once wrote about the divine Irish Guinness, and head into the pitch darkness of a Dublin night, stimulated and aroused by the whole perfection of people growing up from boys to men.

I came away next evening thinking and knowing that Dublin is a city alive and well and full of good, true people.

© Dave McCulloughSounds, 15 September 1979

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