Wednesday 25 April 2018

A bunch of thyme: Mrs Brown's other boys

ill a sitcom single launch Foster and Allen back into the charts? Graham Clifford on the Irish warblers who have overcome a ruinous financial setback to celebrate 40 years on the road

Still going strong: Foster and Allen's new track is a tribute to Mrs Brown's Boys.
Still going strong: Foster and Allen's new track is a tribute to Mrs Brown's Boys.
The duo in 1980s.

Graham Clifford

Mick Foster had never heard of Adam and the Ants. In Westmeath in the early 1980s, there wasn't much call for their camp, overtly sexualised stage performances and songs. Nor were the Boom Town Rats flavour of the month, and the Goombay Dance Band, with their hit 'Seven Tears', made little impact.

"To be honest, I was more into the Kilfenora Céilí Band," recalls Foster with a coy smile.

But in 1982, fate brought the minstrel men of Foster and Allen together with the aforementioned stars for a recording of the BBC's Top of the Pops.

"I had never even seen Top the Pops on television. I suppose the first time I saw it was when I was on it myself," says Foster. He's turning back the clock in his home in the Lake County before heading out the door for a game of handball at his local alley.

It was the pair's version of the ballad 'A Bunch of Thyme' which secured that unlikely spot on Top of the Pops. The song reached number 18 in the British charts and went to number one here. A couple of Aran-jumper-wearing stars had been born.

The duo, who first came together in 1975, went from strength to strength in a whirlwind few years. They released another single, 'Old Flames', which peaked at Number 51 in the UK and undertook their first British tour in 1983. Venues sold out, their melodic tunes and Irish charm wooing audiences.

Along the way another single, 'Maggie', reached Number 27 in the UK and became a Number 1 in New Zealand. There was no stopping the busy balladeers.

But just when they may have been tempted to take the foot off the accelerator in the twilight of their careers, Foster and Allen learned of devastating news.

The musical duo say they were duped by accountant and solicitor Patrick Russell, who they'd engaged to resolve their tax affairs. In 2011, the High Court ruled both artists had to pay around €3m each in unpaid taxes and penalties to the Revenue Commissioners. After decades of packing venues, selling albums in their millions and travelling the world, the two men gazed into the abyss.

But they set about relentlessly touring again and now, five years on, they say that dark and upsetting chapter in their lives is thankfully over.

"Look, we were stupid," says Mick. "We trusted people we shouldn't have. We were tunnel-visioned focusing on the music and touring while leaving the business end of it to someone else who took us for a very expensive ride. Now we could have cribbed and cried about it, but no one was sick, no one was dead. We rolled up our sleeves and because of our audience, our consistent record sales and strength of our international profile, we were able to get back out there."

And that they did. Last year, Foster and Allen celebrated their 40th year in the business with a world tour. And this month the duo have released a new single called 'Mrs Brown's Boys' - a tribute to Brendan O'Carroll's hit TV comedy series.

The catchy track was penned by Clare singer-songwriter PJ Murrihy and its already causing a few ripples across the water.

"I'll be heading off shortly to the BBC studios in Belfast to do an interview with a BBC local radio station over in England," explains Allen, who has lived in Lurgan, Co Armagh, for much of the last decade. Last year he gave 32 such interviews on local BBC radio.

When it comes to attracting press coverage overseas and keeping in the public eye, Foster and Allen, and their management team, could lead modern boybands and flashy PR executives on a merry dance.

"We recently appeared on the BBC quiz programme Pointless, you know, the one presented by that fella Alexander Armstrong. Apparently, it's the second-most-watched programme on BBC after Strictly Come Dancing," says Allen.

And while many traditional and ballad-based Irish bands and crooning artists have seen their fan-base dwindle and their genre lose appeal over the years, Foster and Allen continue to put bums on seats.

They've just returned from a tour of Australia where they played 29 venues and travelled nearly 6,000 miles.

"You see, when we play abroad, the overwhelming majority of our audiences are locals, not Irish people. Like we played for 2,500 people in Johannesburg last year and there were just four Irish people there. I know that because they were from the one family. Sometimes when I look out into the crowd though, I actually think our audience is looking younger… but then have to remind myself that its actually us who are getting older," says Foster.

Regular television appearances, including having their own series, on channels such as TG4, Irish TV and Hot Country TV have also maintained Foster and Allen's position as the kingpins of folk and country on these isles.

"Look, we'll keep going until they put one of us in a box," jokes Foster. "And when one goes, I reckon the other will have one good year doing a tour in memory of the one that's gone!"

Financial implosions aside, Foster and Allen have carved out an extraordinarily successful career spreading their fan base from one end of the globe to the other. Allen explains how the latest single can be downloaded - while their music seems anchored in the past, their focus on selling it to their legions of fans is very much up to date. Perhaps they learned that lesson the hard way.

For others in the Irish and country music genre, the focus appears to be on more glitzy presentation rather than the warm, cuddly image of Mick with his accordion and Tony with his lilting soft voice and guitar.

But the growth of Country and Irish Music TV, especially popular with the older Irish community here and in the UK, provides a platform for exposure and potential sales - and there's still revenue to be made if the right formula can be found.

In many ways, it's Foster and Allen's non-conformist image which makes them so appealing to older audiences around the world today. They're unlikely to attract younger fans in the years ahead - but the grey euro, pound, dollar or rand will do just nicely, too.

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