Wednesday 21 February 2018

Whatever happened to Engine Alley? The band tipped to become the next U2

Returning to Dublin: Engine Alley, pictured here in 1995, will play their first gig in the capital for four years next week
Returning to Dublin: Engine Alley, pictured here in 1995, will play their first gig in the capital for four years next week

Anyone compiling a list of all those Irish bands of the 1980s and early 1990s who were tipped to become the next U2 could not ignore Engine Alley. In fact, some might select the quintet named after a lane in Dublin's Liberties as the ones who really should have enjoyed greater recognition outside this country, whatever about the likes of Cactus World News and the Golden Horde.

The U2 comparison was especially obvious 25 years ago when the Kilkenny-Dublin outfit signed to Mother Records, the label that was set up by Bono and the Edge in 1984. By the time they became part of the roster, Mother was a true indie, having originally been part of the Island Records fold.

Their debut album, A Sonic Holiday, lived up to the promise of their early singles and enjoyed considerable critical acclaim here. With its psychedelic strain of Technicolor guitar pop, it was quite unlike anything else released in Ireland - and there was some pretty forgettable stuff being proffered by indie miserabilists back then.

The late Dublin rock critic George Byrne, who was an early enthusiast to the Engine Alley cause, later noted: "A Sonic Holiday was a bright, shiny pop bauble which wore its art-rock influences on its sleeve and was a concise snapshot of a band seemingly destined for certain success."

It was hard not to listen to super-smart tunes like 'Mrs Winder' and 'A Song for Someone' and not assume that overseas recognition would be a given. But it didn't work out like that - far from it.

Rather than blazing a trail abroad, Engine Alley released just one more album - 1995's Shot in the Light - before fizzling out. A subsequent album's worth of material was ready to go, but was never officially released.

And yet, like many Irish bands of their vintage, the Kenealy brothers who formed its nucleus never threw in the towel and continue to play the odd Engine Alley gig. By all accounts they were in superb form at Electric Picnic earlier this month, and on Friday, they play their first Dublin show in four years when they take the stage at the intimate Grand Social venue.

Frontman Canice Kenealy is philosophical about how the Engine Alley story panned out. "I've come to terms with what we achieved," he says. "There's no point any more thinking about what might have been because that gets you nowhere. Although, we didn't get to have much success outside this country, a lot of people here liked what we did and I'm content with that"

Many people might have thought that U2 were hands-on about the bands signed to its label, but nothing could be further from the truth, according to Kenealy. "We met the Edge once," he says, "but that was about it. Steve Lillywhite was with him, though, and we went on to work with him."

Lillywhite had produced several early U2 albums, as well as seminal work from Peter Gabriel and the Pogues. He was a big name and not someone who a promising young band on a debut album could ordinarily hope to work with, so the tenuous U2 connection must have helped.

"He really got what we were about," Kenealy says today. "The production was clean and crisp, and the songs sounded good." Lillywhite also coaxed an unashamedly commercial sound from the band and they were all over Irish radio in 1992.

But as is so often the case of domestic bands who seemingly had world-domination in sight, the label dragged its heels about releasing it internationally. "It was very frustrating," Kenealy says. "We couldn't understand why they were taking so long when the album had been doing well in Ireland. Looking back, we didn't get to play that much out of the country at all."

Like many bands before and after them, Engine Alley relocated to London with the vague hope of cracking the especially tough UK market. They found themselves in a city that had become infatuated with Suede's eponymous debut album but had little interest in a bunch of Irish musical ex-pats. Incidentally, the Kenealy brothers shared Brett Anderson's love of David Bowie - you could hear the glam influence of the icon in both Suede and A Sonic Holiday - but there was only one album that people were talking about in the summer of 1993.

With original drummer Emmaline Duffy-Fallon - only a schoolgirl when she first joined - quitting the band around this time, observers might have felt like the Engine Alley story was ending not long after it had began. But the Kenealys and Eamonn Byrne regrouped and released a less pop-oriented follow-up, Shot in the Light, that was also well received critically, but seemed not to connect with many of those who had embraced A Sonic Holiday.

Years later, 2fm DJ Dan Hegarty would hail the album as a lost classic. Writing about it in his 2014 book Buried Treasure, he noted that its songs sound "as if they were written and recorded out of frustration and a dogged determination - it is the sound of a band open to the prospect of change".

It's a description that chimes with Kenealy's own recollections. "We didn't want to repeat ourselves," he says today. "We wanted to try something different." A hint about what a third album would have sounded like is available for your aural pleasure on YouTube - search for 'Engine Alley Summer of 96'.

Kenealy hopes to release the album properly next year. "Back then, it wasn't easy to just put an album out, but it is now. I'm not sure why we've waited this long, but the time is right."

Kenealy's dreams of being a full-time musician never came to pass - he has a regular office job in Kilkenny now - but the thrill of playing never waned. "If anything, it's more enjoyable now than it was back then," he says, "we've nothing to prove any more."

Engine Alley play Dublin's Grand Social, on Friday, September 30, and Kilkenny's Brewery Corner on Saturday, October 1.

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