I don’t know when I developed an interest in music per se. After all, throughout my primary and lower secondary school years, during Music classes, I had always been kept in the section called ‘offnotes’ (after being rapped across the knuckles with a heavy tuning fork) and told to ‘sing silently within my heart’ and then ignored while Mrs. Morris, my primary music teacher, got on with her job of teaching the others. Anyway, at some point my eldest sister bought something called a radiogram. This was a long rectangular pine box which practically filled our small living room. The lid, coffin-like, opened to display a built-in am / fm radio with big speakers, a storage area for L.Ps and a turntable to play the albums on. I remember something by Nat King Cole and another sister bought Bridge over Troubled Waters, while my mother used to buy discount albums at the local supermarket where the range covered Mozart’s Best Hits to Best of the Swingin’ Twenties and on through the genres.
Before, during and after the advent of the radiogram, I relied on a small blue transistor radio, in a genuine leather case with a strap. I used to listen to a pirate radio station on board a ship called Radio Caroline and Radio Luxemburg both of which broadcast modern ‘pop’ music and sometimes, instead of using headphones, I would put the tranny under my pillow and fall asleep listening to a shipping weather forecast describing end of the earth places like Finisterre, Faeroes Malin and Fastnet.
Disc jockeys* on the BBC TV programs like Top of the Pops at 7:30 pm on a Thursday night introduced a variety of live acts into my living room and put faces and identities to the sounds and music I was used to hearing on the radio. The early sixties were a prime time for all the big bands of the day to emerge – Herman’s Hermits, The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, of course, Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Who, The Troggs, and the Tremeloes. Of course, hearing a band on the tranny was very different to seeing them perform on TV, even if it was black and white and very grainy signal. Anyway, right from the start I was a Rolling Stones man. Long used to belting out ‘this could be the last time, the last time oh yeah’ or moaning about not getting any satisfaction (something I could readily sympathise with) I was completely overwhelmed by Jagger’s swagger, Charlie’s deadbeat, emotionless face, the lead guitarist’s face hidden by long hair but his body language spoke eloquently of the force within. I disliked one of the early members of The Stones as a bit of a ‘poseur’ but I liked the path the band took after his death and influence petered out. I don’t know if it was my father’s scorn or the deliciously threatening tone of the music, lyrics, antics, on and off stage, or lifestyle (if only!) but I was definitely a fan. Compared with the Beatles, also scorned by my father – ‘Would you ever look at the head of hair on that one. Is it a man or a woman or what?’ – who sang about wanting to hold my hand, the Stones blatantly suggested speaking the night together with all that implied, thanks very much.
Then, during late high school, I started going out to dances, held at regular periods in the Tennis or the Rugby or the Yacht Club and began to really distinguish between actually live performances by local bands in contrast to a disco held, perhaps at the Golf Club, and became more aware of musicians, all home-grown, of course in the sense that they were small bands from Dublin and the rest of the country.
I don’t actually remembering buying any L.P’s but I suppose friends lent me some. I certainly bought singles or E.P’s, I think they were called, which played at a different speed on the turntable to the larger L.P’s. Mony-Mony by Tommy James and the Chaundels was a favourite as was Ring of Fire, not by Johnny Cash but by some one-shot weirdo – The Crazy World of Arthur Brown? I’m pretty sure The Sloop John B by the Beach Boys was another one.
However, the single which stood out the most was one I certainly did not buy. It had an orange inset label and there was a different song on each side A and B. I don’t remember which side the track Positively 4th Street was on but the voice and the power blew me away. I was used to going to, god help me, trendy Poetry Readings and sometimes the earnest poet – nearly always, bespectacled, bearded, pale, wearing drawstring pants and plaid shirts – would read their compositions with verve and even dramatic gestures. However, the scorn, the disdain and the pure venom expressed by Bob Dylan was extraordinary – ‘How I wish, for just one moment, you could stand inside my shoes / then you could see just how much I despise you’, or words to that effect. Amazing, virulent stuff.
Not having sufficient funds – or the interest – to splash out on L.P.’s or cassettes and copying to and from them was not yet feasible so I fell back on what my immediate neighbourhood had to offer. Besides the dances held at the various clubs around the area, there were also dedicated venues like The Top Hat Ballroom, whose patrons often woke me as they walked past our house late at night long after the last bus service had stopped. I never went there (my mother said they were a very rough crowd!) but instead to Stella House, in a more genteel area, which doubled as a cinema and a concert venue. Near that was The Barn, another dancehall with concert features i.e. stage, sound system and lights. These were far more professional than the rugby club venues and attracted more popular acts. Dublin was a small city and for someone to break through regular appearance had to be made at all of these clubs, concert and dance Halls and so on.
A band called Them fronted by Van Morrison who howled and wept and begged his way through Gloria and Mystic Eyes, while Rory Gallagher of Taste was the self (?) proclaimed best guitarist in the world.
Tin Lizzie’s Boys are Back in Town fronted by Phil Lynott while on the traditional Irish scene, modern approaches were taken with traditional instruments and bands like Horslips and Planxty produced not only beautiful love songs, stirring tales of rebellion but also evocative and lyrical descriptions of countryside.
However, it was the album Astral Weeks by Van Morrison that made me a ‘Van the man fan’ for life – ‘I was conquered in a car seat / not a thing that I could do…’ but it was Van’s incredible use of repetition that was so amazing. He could take a line or a word – or part of a word – and just drag it out magnificently, as in the fade out on Madame George, or the incredible track, Listen to the Lion on St. Dominic’s Preview, where he grunts, growls, gibbers, stutters and wails over the lines Listen to the Lion for more than three minutes. (I just listened to it again and timed it this time!)
From the time I finished secondary school until I was done and dusted with university, I left Ireland every summer and worked somewhere in Europe – factories, train stations, hotels – to earn enough for the next year’s fees and to treat myself the occasional luxury like a portable radio cassette player where I quickly built up a library of both bought and borrowed music. Inevitably my library was top heavy with copies of Rolling Stones albums like Hide Tide and Green Grass along with The London Years collection. Sometime during those years, late one night at party somewhere or other, most people had gone and a few of us lay sprawled around, sharing the last of the booze, cigarettes and other miscellaneous intoxicants and I became absorbed in the lines –‘You’re an idiot babe / it’s a wonder you still know how to breathe’. Wow, strong words. Dylan again and then at a much later period in my life, once again sprawled on a rooftop apartment in Sevilla, watching the pelicans build clumsy looking nests on adjacent rooftops, two of Dylan’s albums, Blood on the Tracks and Desire seemed to resonate with me. I enjoyed sitting in a sun-baked plaza, watching random dogs scuffle and play while listening to ‘Hot chilli beans in the noonday sun … shot down in the cantina..’ or ‘I helped her out of a jam I guess but maybe I used too much force’
Joni Mitchell made an appearance around that time too and again each and every song seemed to be like a Gestalt or cloze passage where I could fill in the missing bits to make it fit exactly my life or predicament or pleasure at the time. ‘Come on down to the Mermaid Cafe and I will buy you a bottle of wine / and we’ll laugh and drink and smash our empty glasses down’.
Then, after several years in audio darkness, a friend gave me an album by The Sisters of Mercy which I immediately referenced back to a song of the same title by Leonard Cohen but this was a different kettle of fish. Pounding drums, a driving guitar and the anger of ‘I’ve nothing to say / I ain’t said before / I’ve bled all I can / I won’t bleed no more …’ led by a Goth influenced Andrew Eldritch.
Nevertheless, the Sisters of Mercy led me back to Leonard Cohen but the album called The Future was in direct contrast to the early stuff like Suzanne – ‘and she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China / and just when you want to tell her that you have no love to give her/ she gets you on her wavelength …’ or the beautiful break-up line – ‘It’s just the way love changes / like the shoreline with the sea …’ whereas here, in The Future, the scorn and contempt ride high above the tenderness and love of earlier albums. ‘I have seen the future, brother and it is murder. … Take the only tree that’s left / and stick it up the hole in your culture … and now the wheels of heaven stop / you feel the devil’s riding crop / get ready for the future / it is murder’.
So, to return to the basic topic of this article – Favourite Bands, etc, let’s see if quantity is anything to go by and indicate who my favourites are – currently in my iTunes library I have the following
Bob Dylan – 24 Albums
The Rolling Stones – 20 albums (I could include the stand alone albums by Keith Richards and that would bring the Stones level with Dylan.
Van Morison – 14 Albums
Leonard Cohen – 8 albums
* Top of the Pops D.J.’s included Pete Murray, Jimmy Saville, Alan Freeman among others.