There’s more to Irish rock than U2, as a new compilation proves. Strange Passion, released this summer, showcases the vital post punk Irish music scene, offering contemporary sounds and a peek into a world that hasn’t been celebrated until now.
Producer, music collector and radio DJ Darren McCreesh was inspired to “paint the picture of an Irish music scene that was quite diverse, which is at odds to what we've been lead to believe. There was really great material out then, people didn't have wide access to it, and promoters didn’t want to take chances.” People assume, he says, there was music “before U2 and after U2, and nothing else."
Strange Passion: Explorations in Irish Post Punk and Electronic Music 1980-83 (released through Finders Keepers Records/B-Music) is the first collection to document a music movement that’s been all but forgotten. The compilation features a variety of sounds that embrace both percussive and melodic aspects of post-punk rock, though electronic sounds and looping are especially adventurous. Bands like Chant Chant Chant, Stano, and Operating Theatre have a distinctly modern sound to them; they’d be right at home beside artists like Owen Pallett, Passion Pit, and Sleigh Bells. SM Corporation’s “Fire From Above” is stunningly contemporary, with its bleeping electronic sounds and driving beat; Tripper Humane’s “Discoland” recalls the droning electronic menace of electro-pioneers Throbbing Gristle with its heavy, hypnotic looping and fuzzy guitars.
McCreesh himself was a child during the post punk heydey. ““I only got into that music during my teens and then most definitely when I started college, digging deep and buying records. It was like a voyage of discovery.”
Encouraged by label Finders Keepers, he began investigating the Irish post punk scene three years ago, reaching out to members of former bands, who, in turn, introduced him to other bands. “It was an unpacking of a scene by meeting people and talking about it, and using Hot Press as a reference point,” he says, though he quickly adds that he would repeatedly Google the phrase “Irish post punk” for results as well.
The Virgin Prunes are the best-known of all the bands featured on Strange Passion. A post punk outfit with a leaning toward the theatrical, the band featured lead men Gavin Friday and Guggi donning dresses, makeup, loincloths, and carefully-placed pigs’ heads for their live performances. As journalist Peter Murphy wrote in Hot Press, the band was “(a) hybrid of performance art, avant-garde and outre rock ... daubed by Dali, malformed doppelgangers skulking in German Expressionist shadows.” The Prunes’ first single, 1980’s “Twenty Tens (I’ve Been Smoking All Night)” features machine-gun attack of vocals, guitars, and insistent percussion.
Finders Keepers Records
The Virgin Prunes, with Gavin Friday (centre).
“Bands like The Virgin Prunes were never properly give their due,” says McCreesh.
“There’s this myth of them being just this sort-of-gothic, experimental outfit, but in actual fact they encapsulated a certain energy and anger of Irish youth at that time," the producer explains. "It's too easy to dismiss them as being sub-U2, or U2-wannabes. By including the track, it's challenging people to re-think The Virgin Prunes. It’s the result I wanted in terms of moving the conversation and reconsidering our history.”
Prunes co-founder (and now successful solo artist) Gavin Friday concurs. He saw a preview of Strange Passion in an Irish magazine recently. “There was a huge picture of The Virgin Prunes there, and (the writer), who must’ve been two (years old) or so at the time, basically said, ‘They were always overrated; this is nothing but complete noise; their later stuff got even noisier.’ I thought, ‘What do you want?’ It’s not pop.”
“It was performance art,” McCreesh says of the Prunes. “Ireland actually was quite unusual in that time: you had bands like Operating Theatre, who were very much theatrical, and a lot of musicians doubling up to sort of provide music for theatre productions. The Project Arts Center was full of very creative people who were practicing music, performance art, visual art, art theatre.”
Indeed, it was within this fertile ground of fertility that many bands got their start. The Project Arts Centre, located within Dublin’s Temple Bar district, was an important cultural incubator for early young talents; U2, The Virgin Prunes, and The Boomtown Rats all graced its stage in the late 1970s, and the centre (then run by director Jim Sheridan) also introduced the talents of actors Gabriel Byrne and Liam Neeson, and filmmaker Neil Jordan. Writer / actor (and now politician) Gerard Mannix Flynn taught a teenaged Bono the finer points of stagecraft and mime. Playwrights like Tom MacIntyre and Tom Murphy were shaking up Ireland's mainstream theatre world, presenting an alternative vision of the country and its history.
Concurrent to this was the still-lingering spirit of punk rock music, which, as McCreesh notes, had transformative effects. “A lot of kids in Ireland could relate to that sense of, 'That's me, I can do it for myself, I'm not going to ask anyone's permission.'”
“People hadn't got money, people didn't have cars,” Friday recalls, “but it was incredible. We hung out at The Coffee Inn and record shops called Advance Records. There was a great community. Everyone wasn't total friends but respected everyone else.”
Finders Keepers Records
Stano (L) with Maurice Foley, singer and guitarist for The Threat, in Dublin, 1980. Stano is still involved with experimental music as well as painting; Foley joined a Hare Krishna community in Cork in 1981. The work of both artists is featured on Strange Passion.
There was also an active underground importing service, with travellers to England being sent with lists of things to buy that couldn’t be had in Ireland at the time. “There was this whole thing of, ‘Who's going over to Liverpool?’" Friday recalls. “We’d send lists and the guy or girl would go over and be his or her own record importer on the ferry -and not only music but clothes were on the list too. Like, ‘Could you get me a pair of bondage trousers?’ How great is that?”
Friday confirms the brewing cocktail of influences at the time, noting that this mixture has meant a slowness to acknowledge its contemporary cultural history.
“We were living in the midst of sort of a Catholic stranglehold and living in a recession much worse than this is,” he notes, referring to the aughties death of the Celtic Tiger, “so you know, you were rejecting of things Irish and Catholic just as a stance, because it was such a repressive time. Up to that period, the only bands really popular were Van Morrison and Rory Gallagher and Thin Lizzy, but there was some subconscious thing: 'Don't be weird, your Ma would be annoyed!'” He lets out a wry laugh. “Before you had the widescreen-world-wide-web world we live in, earrings and eyeliner and synthesizers were not that important in Galway.”
“Twenty Tens” was recorded outside Dublin, just below the border and near to Belfast. Influenced by the percussion used in popular recordings of the day by the likes of David Bowie, Kate Bush and Joy Division, the Prunes incorporated a big percussive sound that is echoed in the aggression of the vocal line.
“It was bigtime DIY, before samplers or computers,” Friday notes. “I remember our early experiments. Dik (Evans), our guitarist, had a reel-to-reel where we would tape loops and get little samples and make up our own backing tracks. It was an incredibly innovative time, not just taking the punk sense of, three-chords-and-be-angry -we were taking that -but I think a lot of the bands then were also looking toward Bowie and Kraftwerk. As a kid, I was taking the stance of my influences: what Johnny Lydon was doing, and what Bowie was doing. You wanted that sort of visceral energy. You felt you were making trying to make something new.”
Finders Keepers Records
Major Thinkers' aggressive, peppy track "Avenue B" was a minor club hit in New York upon its 1981 release. The track is part of Strange Passion: Explorations In Irish Post Punk and Electronic Music 1980 - 1983.
That sense of innovation was always prevalent in larger cities like London and New York, but it had more power in the smaller, less glamorous places, full of bored teenagers, bad economies, and dead-end jobs. Artists like R.E.M (from Athens, Georgia), Pere Ubu (from Cleveland, Ohio), and The Stone Roses and The Happy Mondays (both from Manchester) were, in many ways, shaped by the limitations of their smaller home cities. The same was especially true of Dublin in the post-punk era.
“The DIY stance was totally embraced by DIY kids in places like Dublin and Manchester and Sheffield," Friday observes. "It wasn’t the sort of glammy London or New York people doing it. It was dowdy people who tried. I didn't run with the dowdy; I went for the glam.” He laughs. “(The Virgin Prunes) went for dowdy glamour!”
But that mix of grit and glamor proved incendiary for a place where a strongly conservative, Catholic mindset still prevailed. “It got to the stage where we couldn't get gigs,” Friday recalls. “We were a bunch of provoking little shits! But we thought, ‘What are we going to do, get banned and not play?’ We went to Europe. It was the saving grace of the band.”
Leaving home to find success on foreign shores isn’t a new theme in Irish cultural history, and it finds perfect expression on Strange Passion. “Immigration has been such an important part of Irish history. So many Irish people emigrated,” the producer notes, “and it’s the same for bands.” The Major Thinkers’ members Pierce Turner and Larry Kirwan left their native Wexford for New York’s Lower East Side in the early 1980s; they eventually went their separate ways, Turner onto a solo career and Kirwan to form punk band Black 47, but not before they scored a hit with their peppy, rough-and-tumble tune “Avenue B”, included on the compilation. Stano, of The Threat, went on to a prolific solo career in experimental electronic music as well as painting. In the last two decades alone Stano has collaborated with Colm O'Coisoig of My Bloody Valentine, as well as Thin Lizzy's Brian Downey.
Gavin Friday performs live at Dublin's Olympia Theatre November 29th, 2011.
“Deep down, Ireland is a little bit hippie," the artist says. "It likes its pint of Guinness, it likes its spliff. There’s a bit of a natural-folk thing here. Ireland tends to go for more straightforward stuff instinctively.”
“In the last couple of years we've started to reflect back on our cultural history,” McCreesh observes. “For twenty-odd years, or fifteen at least, we were going on about the forward-moving train; I think now's a good time to look back on all that. This (album) is not something you could've done ten years ago. I think now people are more aware the physical artifact is going, and people are being more sentimental.”
Friday agrees. “You have TV shows like Those Were The Days which goes back to 1978 to show news clippings: the Pope visited, a bomb went off. And the footage of the ‘70s and ‘80s, even the early ‘90s, looks really fucking old! But you play the music of the time... and music doesn't date the way visuals do. I think all this music made in this era will have its renaissance. I hope so. It was a very creative time.”