Slane: The washouts and the wows from The Verve and Bon Jovi to REM and the Foo Fighters
When Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl steps in front of 80,000 screaming fans at Slane Castle next summer, he may well reflect on how far he has come since his debut performance in Ireland.
In 1991, he visited the country for the first time as newbie drummer with an underdog trio named Nirvana: there was a brace of shows, at Dun Laoghaire's Top Hat and Cork's Sir Henry's, sticky, stygian pits reeking of dry ice and spilled beer.
That the Foos will make worthy Slane headliners is beyond question. Certainly after several years of underwhelming top-line acts, Slane required a band of their status – widely popular yet with an undertow of credibility.
'Cred' is not something 2013 Slane kingpins Bon Jovi could ever be accused of – a guilty pleasure where everyone is in on the joke except the musicians, for Jon Bon Jovi's crew the County Meath venue was surely an epic reach too far.
Ditto Kings of Leon, gracing the vast amphitheatre in 2011. One of those bands that burn brightly and briefly, already it is starting to seem vaguely ridiculous KoL were ever big enough to perform at the iconic venue.
Without a meaningful hit in half a decade – even hardcore fans will find it hard to say anything enthusiastic about their last two LPs – and notoriously dreary in the flesh (they just stand there, churning out the hits with soul-pummeling competence), their legacy is shriveling before our eyes.
For all those reasons, Foo Fighters at Slane feels like a glorious throwback to an era when performing at Slane genuinely meant something – was confirmation, no less than a Glastonbury headliner or a week at Madison Square Garden, that a group had truly arrived.
Somewhere along the way Slane appeared to lose sight of what it was supposed to stand for. Through the 80s – admittedly an age when old school, crotch-waggling rock stars bestrode the earth – it attracted the biggest hitters of the era.
Bowie, Springsteen, Queen: when people think of Slane, to this day it is these performances that lodge in the collective memory (in fact Queen and Bowie were criticized at the time as overblown and underwhelming – which did nothing to prevent the gigs quickly taking on a legendary cast).
In the early 90s, too, standards remained high – headlining Slane continued to mean something. Speaking to this journalist several months ago, guitarist Slash said that Guns 'n Roses Slane date in 1992 was one of the biggest he had ever performed and still stands out for him.
Ditto the following year's alliance of Neil Young and Pearl Jam, a coming together that acknowledged rock music's rebirth, in the fulcrum of grunge, as something vital and relevant.
For those who attended REM in 1995 there was likewise a sense of a generation-defining moment unfolding before our eyes – not least when support act Oasis blew the mid afternoon cobwebs away, Noel Gallagher delivering one of the earliest renditions of Don't Look Back In Anger ('wow,' 80,000 people thought, 'that song is going to be HUGE').
However, as the millennium came around Slane appeared to lose its way – with music festivals springing up across the country, the event had to work harder to distinguish itself and booked several undercooked bills.
Most notorious were performances by The Verve (1998) and Stereophonics (2002). If either band is remembered today – and really, truly, they aren't – it is as competent plain Janes, also rans in the pantheon of vaguely interesting British rock groups of the past 20 years.
The Verve were already defeated by the time they took the stage, thoroughly overshadowed by a Robbie Williams on the cusp of his imperial phase; The Stereophonics, meanwhile, were so bland attendees had the curious sensation of feeling the gig slip into the recesses of their brain AS IT WAS STILL HAPPENING.
What about U2's two shows in 2001? Well, by all accounts, the dates were a triumph (remarkable considering Bono was mourning his recently passed father). Still U2 concerts, in Ireland at any rate, have a habit of overshadowing the background details – nobody can doubt these gigs were all about the band, rather than the venue.
Since then Slane has been a story of mixed results and quiet triumphs. Madonna's 2004 performance was perceived almost straight away as a flop – our attitudes soured by apocryphal tales of backstage diva-hood (the Kabbalah hot-tubs etc); Oasis, on the brink of breaking up, put in an acceptable turn in 2009 (opening act the Prodigy, to their credit, were immense).
We have, however been waiting for a Slane concert that represented more than another box ticked on the summer festival circuit. Perhaps Foo Fighters are the group to restore mystique to this battered institution.
You can, without question, take it the gig will mean a lot to Grohl, who has had an intense relationship with Ireland going back to those Nirvana dates two decades ago.
"I remember waking up in the morning, walking around Cork," Grohl told me several years ago. "My mom is Irish. I ran back to my hotel room and called my mother - 'Mom, all the women look like you!' And yeah, it was the first time I had seen an audience so enthusiastic. They were going fucking bananas. And that was just before [seminal LP] Nevermind came out. So it was sort of like...well, I hate to say it was the calm before the storm because it was pretty fucking insane. But if you can imagine that being the calm, try imagining the storm."