Monday 22 October 2018

Music: The Blades of glory - Raytowners back for more

Back on the road: Brian Foley, Paul Cleary, Conor Brady and Jake Reilly of The Blades
Back on the road: Brian Foley, Paul Cleary, Conor Brady and Jake Reilly of The Blades

It may not have made the Six One news or trended on Twitter, but for a cohort of Irish music fans the news that The Blades were releasing a new single was a very big deal indeed. 'Smalltime' got its first play on Ian Dempsey's morning show on Today FM almost three weeks ago and appears on a four-track EP of the same name which is released next week, but available to listen to now for free on Bandcamp.

It's the band's first new music in 30 years and demonstrates that Paul Cleary's gifts for writing memorable, intelligent, sophisticated pop songs hasn't dimmed one bit. The introspective title track, features Cleary's finest croon and a brass accompaniment, is especially good - unmistakably The Blades, but the sound of a band adjusting to life in 2015 and not trying to roll back the years to their early 20s heyday.

It would be lovely to think that the EP will kick-start a new-found appreciation for the band, but it's likely to be those who were converted to the cause long ago who will be especially enamoured with the music. It would be a safe bet to assume that like the bulk of the music they released in the late 1970s/early 1980s, Smalltime and any future releases will bypass the great Irish public.

Rewind to 1977. The Boomtown Rats were enjoying their first UK chart-topper with 'Looking After Number One' - really helping to put Dublin music on the map - and, in the working-class suburb of Ringsend, Cleary, his brother Lar and mutual friend Pat Lawlor were forming The Blades.

They got noticed from the start, not least when the plug was pulled on their very first gig. They were playing their local Catholic Young Men's Society hall and when they started to get into the most emblematic song of the year, The Sex Pistols' 'God Save the Queen', the organisers ordered them off stage, thinking they were playing the UK national anthem.

The sharply attired trio's pop smarts were soon evident thanks to a pair of songs still regarded as among the best Irish singles ever - 'Ghost of a Chance' and 'Hot For You'. Their shows at the now defunct venue The Magnet in Pearse Street (just up the road from Ringsend) are still talked about and in 1979 there was a six-weekend residency in The Baggot Inn with another Dublin band, U2. It's generally acknowledged - and not just by Blades aficionados - that Cleary & Co were the more complete outfit of the two at the time. Anyone tipping an Irish band to light up the 80s would likely have plumped for them ahead of U2 and there was no love lost between the bands. Sounds magazine attended one of the shows and noted that, despite shortcomings, The Blades are "gauche, full of energy, naivete, guts and good songs."

But it was U2 that got out of the blocks first when it came to releasing a debut album. Boy emerged in 1980 and helped put Bono and friends on road to fame and fortune. The Blades, by contrast, were going through line-up changes with Lar Cleary and Pat Lawlor stepping aside and being replaced by Brian Foley and Jake Reilly. Cue another brilliant run of singles, including 'The Bride Wore White' and an appearance on The Late Late Show that showed just how tight their live sound could be. But the promised album still wasn't materialising.

By the time the small Irish label, Reekus, was releasing The Blades' first LP, The Last Man in Europe, in 1985, U2 were on album number four, The Unforgettable Fire, and heading supernova as a result of Live Aid. The spotlight was on Bono rather than Cleary, and many missed out on a remarkable Irish album.

Named after George Orwell's original title for Nineteen Eighty Four, The Last Man in Europe illustrated just how thrilling their socially aware songs could be. For evidence, look no further than their four-minute masterpiece, the big, bold and brass-tinged 'Downmarket', which captured the troubles of young people in an Ireland scarred by the 80s recession: "Everything's black and white and grey/ Living from day to day to day/ I suppose I can't be choosy/ When there's not too many choices."

In retrospect, it seems outrageous that a band capable of such a song, or a track like 'Revelations of Heartbreak', would struggle to be recognised in their own country, let alone abroad. But Cleary didn't appear to want success the way U2 did. While Bono, in an untypically Irish way, was open about his band's desire for global recognition, his southside counterpart seemed willing to just take it or leave it.

For all Cleary's talents, he could be 'difficult'. There's a mid-80s interview he did with Dave Fanning, now on YouTube, and he appears uncomfortable with even the most innocuous questions from someone clearly enraptured by the band. Indeed, Fanning's liner notes for Raytown Revisited - the singles compilation released in 1985, and boasting a title referring to a Dublinese name for Ringsend - noted that The Blades were "simply the best home-based Irish band of the last five years" (wording that wouldn't upset the globetrotting U2!).

The Blades split in 1986 and Cleary went on to record critically acclaimed material with new band The Partisans. A solo album, Crooked Town, appeared in 2001, and then he promptly disappeared to raise a family.

The Blades reformed for a pair of rapturously received Olympia shows in late 2013. Cleary had got a sense of the welcome that his old band would receive a few weeks before when he performed at the sad, yet life-affirming tribute show for the terminally ill Philip Chevron, once of another hotly tipped Dublin band, The Radiators from Space.

It's The Blades' second coming, and it's been special so far.

The Smalltime EP is released on Friday. The Blades play Dublin's Olympia on December 5

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