Beeb gives Irish bands a spin for old times' sake
Dave Fanning has been commissioned by the BBC to showcase the best of Irish rock. But where to start, asks Tanya Sweeney
To say that Dave Fanning has been a champion of Irish music is like saying the sea is a bit wet. And as a sort of elder statesman of Irish rock, he's also prone to wistful, it-was-all-green-fields-round-here-once sentiments about music.
When asked about what drives today's musicians, he replies with typical cheeky candour: "A lack of education and dull brains."
"There's always great music out there, and the music is played as efficiently as ever," he explains. "The problem is that a lot of it isn't exciting. In fact, I'm baffled by how pedestrian a lot of music is these days. Some of the bands now make music simply to fit on to daytime radio, so it's predictably bound to be sh**e. Taste in society changes, sure, but the personality has been seeped out of music.
"You can never fall in love with music now like you did the way it trickled out in the '60s. From an impact point of view, rock is completely gone. I was in a shop the other day and I heard The Supremes. It really stopped me in my tracks." He then adds, after barely a moment's pause for breath: "If someone accuses me of being too old, I wouldn't have a leg to stand on, but genuinely, it's not an age thing."
No better time, then, to cast an exacting eye back on Ireland's illustrious musical canon. From April 13 onwards, Fanning will host a four-part special on BBC Radio 6 taking in the most seminal Irish acts from Them right up to Villagers. Charting the co-ordinates of Ireland's ongoing musical journey is no small feat, but Fanning plans to start at the rock scene that emerged from the dancehalls and showband gigs of 1960s Ireland and take it from there.
The usual suspects – Van Morrison, U2, Rory Gallagher, Thin Lizzy – will of course be present and correct. Yet seeing as Fanning has carte blanche on the selection process, however, BBC Radio 6's predominantly British audience can expect a few curveballs, too.
"I might not even mention a band's best or biggest album, more the album that defines them," he says. "I know people will be like, 'he should have picked this but he picked that'. It's not going to matter. If you were making up a list of 100 Best Albums, someone will always be left out.
"I might put in Sinead O'Connor's 'Nothing Compares 2 U'; I might put My Bloody Valentine in twice. I think a band like Simple Kid are fantastic, and I love tracks like Rollerskate Skinny's 'Speed To My Side' or A House's 'Endless Art'.
And, for anyone who believes that Irish music's finest hour was in the '70s or '80s, there are plenty of 21st-Century gems on board, too: "I'm guessing O Emperor, Little Green Cars and Fionn Regan will be in the mix somewhere. Adrian Crowley is another great one who's flying under the radar."
As to what constitutes a classic Irish album, Fanning posits that music resonating down the ages is greatly overrated.
"Years ago, my brother said of T-Rex, 'sure they'll only last a year', but I said, 'yeah, but what a great year it's going to be'," he recalls. "If it's great in its time, like the way you had a stupid hairstyle in 1972 that you thought looked great ... that's the important thing."
Some classic Irish albums, of course, are seminal in other ways: My Bloody Valentine's 1991 opus Loveless, for instance, was a sonically out-there album that effectively spawned a genre of its own: shoegaze. Even within the Irish canon, My Bloody Valentine are a curiosity. They were always outside of any Irish scene, yet the flag they've planted on the landscape can often be seen in other Irish acts' work.
Referring to their Dubliner frontman Kevin Shields, Fanning enthuses: "He's the man. When Loveless came out it was totally new and unexpected: bizarre sometimes."
Of his own personal favourite Irish album, Fanning adds: "Van Morrison is the Shannon; everyone else is the tributary. The first 10 years of Van's career, 1968-'78, is the best stuff he has ever done. I loved (Van's sixth album) Saint Dominic's Preview so much that I went to San Francisco just to visit the places it was recorded. Every lyric on the album meant something to me. What does it all actually mean though? I still haven't a clue."
Even with his 60th birthday approaching next year, it's clear that, despite denouncing most modern pop music as auto-tuned dross, Fanning retains the same enthusiasm for music as he has always done.
"It's a taste thing, not an age thing," he says. "Is music for me? Bloody sure it is. I don't have to be 22 to go down to the Workman's Club and have a good time."
DAVE FANNING'S FOUR-PART MUSIC SPECIAL FOR BBC RADIO 6 STARTS ON APRIL 13. SEE WWW.BBC.CO.UK/6MUSIC FOR INFORMATION.