Rock: Blades sharpened for return to stage
The Philip Chevron testimonial concert at the Olympia in August was a very special night indeed. Not only did music fans get to pay tribute to the man himself, who sadly passed away several weeks later, but got to hear his band the Radiators from Space, Horslips, Shane MacGowan and several others. However, for many, myself included, a special highlight was the appearance of Paul Cleary.
Looking as if he'd barely changed a bit since The Blades were in their pomp back in the early 1980s, a solo Cleary delivered a ska-inflected version of the Radiators' 'Enemies' before piling into one of the Blades' most enduring songs, 'Downmarket'. The place, not to put too fine a point on it, went nuts.
"I was a bit taken aback by the reaction, I must admit," he says, rather modestly. "I've always been slightly wary of those multi-act bills as you're never playing to your own crowd, but I couldn't really refuse once I was invited. And that did set a few wheels in motion."
The wheels in motion he's referring to mean that on two nights in December Cleary will definitely be playing to his own crowd, as The Blades return to a Dublin stage, the Olympia, for the first time since 1986.
"The reaction to that set at the Chevron gig definitely got things going. The notion of doing a few gigs with The Blades was always on the cards but, for one reason or another, the timing never felt right but this time I just thought 'Why not?' and was amazed when the first sold out almost immediately."
When The Blades first emerged from Ringsend in the late 1970s, they were quite rightly regarded as one of the best bands in the city. Cleary, along with his brother Lar on guitar and Pat Larkin on drums, looked Mod sharp and wrote songs which had a socially aware edge but still possessed melodies and choruses to engage. That line-up released two fantastic singles – 'Hot For You' (1980) and 'Ghost of a Chance' (1981) – but never really capitalised on their momentum to make a serious breakthrough.
"For a time there seemed to be this little competition going on between us and U2," he recalled in Billy Magra's excellent Visual Eyes documentary on his career, made in the late 1980s, "as to which was the most likely to make it big. When we did a six-week double headliner with them in the Baggot Inn, there were people who'd leave after our set and not stick around to watch them. Anyway, we know who won that contest."
It took until 1985 for The Blades to release their debut album The Last Man in Europe, by which time Cleary had picked up a Best Irish Songwriter award from Hot Press and the band clocked up more critically acclaimed singles in 'The Bride Wore White' (1981) and 'Revelations of Heartbreak' (1982).
However, it was with 'Downmarket', arguably his best song, that Cleary best encapsulated the Dublin of the 1980s, as the song's narrator drifts along in a world where "Everything's black and white and grey". Surely the song is as relevant today as it was when he wrote it?
"Thanks for the compliment," he laughs. "Seriously though, when I wrote that back in the early 1980s times were very hard in Dublin, with emigration, unemployment and drugs but I never saw myself as a political songwriter in the strictest sense."
When he knocked The Blades on the head in 1986, Cleary continued on with The Partisans, again combining pure pop songs with snapshots of life in a city which was still on its knees – 'Dublin City Town' and 'Impossible' effectively act as companion pieces to 'Downmarket' – and released a solo album, Crooked Town, in 2001. But, apart from a stint with the Cajun Kings, just what the hell has he been doing for the past 10 years?
"Raising a family," comes the immediate reply. "That's the most important thing in my life now. As regards music, I have written a fair few new songs but they're a bit different to what I've done in the past."
Clocking the rather bemused expression on my face at this revelation he quickly reassures people who may have already bought tickets for the Olympia with a cheery "Oh God no! Don't worry! If there's one way to send people scurrying to the bar at a gig it's the dreaded two words 'new material' . . . No, for these shows it'll be 95pc Blades songs with a few Partisans tracks and maybe one or two from the solo album just to give the brass section a break."
Back in the day Cleary had something of a reputation for being a driven and strong-willed character, but he seems remarkably relaxed at the prospect of these gigs, an exercise his younger self would probably have deemed as an exercise in nostalgia.
"Well, I'm probably not as intense as I used to be," he says with a smile. "To be honest with you, I did have a think about the nostalgia aspect of things and came to the conclusion that, yes, it is nostalgia but there's nothing wrong with that if it's done in the right way. I'm still intensely proud of those songs and if I thought we couldn't do them justice then I wouldn't be doing the gigs, no way."
The Blades play the Olympia on December 13 and 14.