Review: The Thing Is... by Dave Fanning
Harper Collins, €18.29
Published 09/10/2010 | 05:00
Dave Fanning was working as a late-night DJ on the short-lived Dublin pirate music station, Big D, in 1978 when he first happened upon U2.
His brief at the station was to give a leg-up to local talent and he soon found himself inundated with demo cassettes. The Hype, as U2 were then known, were keen for their music to be played on his show and Fanning obliged, as he did with most of the local outfits who sent him music.
But the early incarnation of the band did not excite him. "I was distinctly underwhelmed," he writes.
Yet, there was something about their persistence -- and Bono's unquenchable optimism -- that hooked him from their first meeting. An appreciation of their music would come later.
U2's trajectory from just another Dublin group to the world's biggest band is captured tangentially in Fanning's autobiography, The Thing Is ... but he is refuses to take too much credit for their rise to the top.
Unlike many of those who were there during U2's formative years and have dined out on the connection ever since, Fanning is keen to point out that he simply played the band's songs, interviewed them and, when he joined RTE's new pop station Radio 2 (now 2fm), he had the happy foresight to make them the first act to play his soon-to-be-celebrated Fanning Sessions slot. One can almost imagine Fanning shrugging his shoulders at the suggestion that he altered the course of the U2 story.
Yet being seen as the DJ who helped 'break' the band has its benefits, of course, and he acknowledges the privileged place he finds himself in every time U2 have fresh product to sell. Fanning always gets first dibs on new singles and there's the customary interview, including the one around the time of The Joshua Tree in which the band -- and Fanning -- sat around the RTE studio in the nude. Bono, in the mood for high japes, had insisted.
And when he was getting the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award at the Meteors in 2004, U2 provided a film clip in which they covered The Kinks' 'David Watts', but with the words changed to include an irreverent and adoring ode to Fanning.
In his foreword for the book, Bono writes of Fanning's rough and ready style of presentation, one quite at odds with his more mannered, slick contemporaries.
And Fanning, for his part, talks about his modus operandi that seemed to strike a chord with music lovers. "We were making it up as we went along but it felt real, significant, and most of all, fantastic fun." The "we" refers to Ian Wilson, his long-time producer.
The Thing Is ... -- one of Fanning's stock phrases -- is littered with anecdotal accounts of meetings with rock's biggest names. Somehow, he does not come across as a name-dropper -- perhaps it's the skill of his ghostwriter, UK music journalist Ian Gittins -- but Fanning's laissez-faire demeanour might have something to do with it, too. And always, there's a sense that he can't quite believe he has made a good living by doing something he loves. His father, Barney, couldn't believe it either and would regale his friends that -- when he first joined RTE -- Dave was being paid £175 a week to "play records".
He's not afraid to send himself up, not least in his pirate days when he did an exclusive interview with John Illsley, the bass player with Dire Straits, only to discover months later -- on meeting the real John Illsley -- that he had broadcast the ramblings of someone pretending to be him.
Like many of the key incidents in his life, Fanning found himself as an RTE "personality" purely by chance. This southside Dublin kid -- with a middle-class "blissfully happy childhood" incorporating Blackrock College, UCD and J1 summers in America -- was destined for a life as a school teacher. But it was his mother, Annie -- "the greatest Irish mammy ever" -- who helped him find an alternative path when she showed him an advert seeking writers from the now-defunct music magazine, Scene. Only two people responded to the ad, and both were employed.
From there, his broadcasting career kicked off in Inchicore, on Radio Dublin, a pirate ran by the eccentric Eamonn "Captain" Cooke, who would earn notoriety years later when he was jailed for sex offences. And then Big D and Radio 2 came calling.
Like many people of his age, Fanning's love of music was fostered by The Beatles. He writes of the five-month wait he endured for Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and of the tangible delight he garnered from holding a vinyl copy in his hand.
In today's world of unlimited access to music online and a culture of MP3, it's difficult to imagine the excitement he felt in 1964 when Top of the Pops was first broadcast. "Suddenly, here they were -- all the bands I was slavishly reading about in the NME every week, beaming out from our TV screen! It was almost too good to be true."
That same enthusiasm for music seems to have been undimmed with years, and perhaps it's that wisdom ahead of knowledge -- to paraphrase Bono on Fanning -- that has ensured his longevity in what's often seen as a young man's game.
The Thing Is ... is most illuminating when Fanning talks from the heart, whether it's about his doting mother or the candour with which he describes his failure to show enough empathy when his wife Ursula suffered a miscarriage.
Although he doesn't mention Gerry Ryan's untimely death -- the book ends abruptly with reference to a Bob Dylan show in Dublin last year -- the friendship between the two, who joined Radio 2 on the same day, was profound. One need only read about the shared adventures of the two men to sense how devastating the loss must be.