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Wednesday 18 September 2019

The Radiators' 1979 album Ghostown: A rattlebag of emotions - angry, defiant, resigned, tender

It may have failed to capture the zeitgeist at the time, but 40 years to the day since its release, 'Ghostown' - the second album from Irish punk pioneers The Radiators - is now rightly revered as a hyper-literate and seminal masterpiece

A decade after Ghostown: The Radiators in 1989, from left, Pete Holidai, Mark Megaray, Philip Chevron and Jimmy Crashe. Photo by Conor Horgan
A decade after Ghostown: The Radiators in 1989, from left, Pete Holidai, Mark Megaray, Philip Chevron and Jimmy Crashe. Photo by Conor Horgan
John Meagher

John Meagher

In August 1979, The Boomtown Rats' 'I Don't like Mondays' seemed ubiquitous. It topped the Irish singles chart for the entirety of the month, having been a UK number one for a week in July.

But there was another release from an Irish rock band that would prove to be just as artistically durable, even if it achieved little of the mass appeal of Bob Geldof's most celebrated composition.

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On August 10, 40 years ago to the day, Dublin band The Radiators released their second album, Ghostown, and it made a huge impact on those who heard it. A massive leap on their frenetic 1977 debut, TV Tube Heart, Ghostown was a cerebral punk album that captured an Ireland that was still politically conservative and in thrall to the Church, despite having experienced a decade of change that marked the birth of the country we know today.

Ghostown was a rattle bag of emotions - angry, defiant, resigned, tender - and it was rooted in the Dublin that the band had crawled from.

Known as The Radiators from Space when they released TV Tube Heart, they immediately set themselves apart from the Irish punk scene with the superb single 'Television Screen'. It's sometimes said that it was the first punk song to chart anywhere in the world. It got them noticed overseas, too, and keen to make their mark, they moved to London - punk's epicentre. There was another reason for going to London: sections of the Irish media were on punk's case following the stabbing to death of a 19-year-old at a punk festival headlined by The Radiators at UCD in 1977.

As was often the case with fledgling bands, they experienced a line-up change for their second album. Co-founder Steve Rapid - aka Stephen Averill - quit and the band shortened their name. Rapid would rejoin a later incarnation of the group and today he's best known as an album-sleeve designer, responsible for virtually everything in U2's back catalogue.

But with the central songwriting partnership of Philip Chevron and Pete Holidai still intact - ably abetted by bassist Mark Megaray and drummer Jimmy Crashe - The Radiators were well placed to deliver a truly special follow-up. And that's what they did thanks, in no small part, to the skills of Tony Visconti - one of the superstar producers of the 1970s, famed for his work with the likes of David Bowie, Marc Bolan and Thin Lizzy.

And unlike the guitar attack of their first album, Ghostown took a more idiosyncratic and sophisticated direction. That direction was typified by wonderful songs like the giddy power pop of 'Confidential' and the pulse-quickening melodrama of 'They're Looting in the Town'.

Listening to a newly remastered version of the album, it's remarkable just how fresh the songs sound. They feel gloriously alive and at every turn you're struck by smart, unexpected arrangements and the hyper-literate lyrics.

And yet, Ghostown isn't nearly as well known as it should be, and many of those who espouse the greatness of early U2 and The Boomtown Rats, for instance, remain blissfully unaware.

Ghostown seemed doomed from the start. It was supposed to be released in the summer of 1978, but was delayed by a year by Chiswick Records, the label that signed the band. And when it eventually was released, the UK critics failed to recognise what a special album they had on their hands and their reviews veered from indifferent to hostile.

It also had the misfortune to be released on the same day as one of 1979's most acclaimed album's, Michael Jackson's Off the Wall, and it seemed to disappear in a month that also saw Talking Heads release Fear of Music and what turned out to be Led Zeppelin's final album, In Through the Out Door.

Those who were enthusiastic - including the late Hot Press writer Bill Graham - raved about the strength of the album, but to little avail.

In retrospect, it's difficult to understand how a song as catchy and well-crafted as 'Million Dollar Hero' could fail to connect with a large audience. One could imagine Elvis Costello - who had a great 1979 - doing really well with it. But those are the breaks in the music business and The Radiators wouldn't be the only band left to ponder just why the record-buying public weren't more engaged. Just ask their Dublin contemporaries, The Blades, who were penning some of the finest Irish singles ever around this time but failed to capture the zeitgeist.

The 40th anniversary edition comes with a large selection of bonus material and its content offers further proof about just how talented they were, especially Chevron (real name Philip Ryan).

'Under Clery's Clock' tells the story of a pair of young boys who meet at the once celebrated Dublin rendezvous point and has been described by Conor Horgan as "the first Irish gay song". Today, Horgan is perhaps best known for his film on Rory 'Panti Bliss' O'Neill, The Queen of Ireland, but he cut his teeth as a music photographer whose early clients included The Radiators.

There's a stirring version of 'The Hucklebuck', the 1940s jazz and R&B number that has been covered countless times. But there was something subversive about Chevron and Holidai's band doing a version because in this country, the song is associated with the showband scene, having provided a huge 1965 hit for Brendan Bowyer and the Royal Showband.

Elsewhere, there's a quirky little song called 'Plura Belle', which reminds us of the impact literature and particularly James Joyce had on the band. Anna Livia Plurabelle is a central character in his often started, rarely finished final novel, Finnegans Wake.

Joyce devotees won't need to be told that one of the band's most emblematic songs, 'Kitty Ricketts', is named after a prostitute in Ulysses.

The 40th anniversary edition of Ghostown is accompanied by newly commissioned liner notes that are worth your time. The Dublin author and music-lover Joseph O'Connor says no band captured his native town of the late 1970s as well as The Radiators did. "With songs like 'Ballad of the Faithful Departed' and 'Kitty Ricketts', it was as though Wilde's Dorian Gray had discovered a Fender Telecaster guitar in some foul rag and bone shop," he writes. "But there was a European sensibility, too, an awareness of wider shores, further horizons, darker clubs."

The album also speaks powerfully to Booker Prize winner Roddy Doyle. "It's a very complete record, but each song is a different world, a short story with its own rhythm and sound… Forty years on, it's a huge thing, a marvel."

University of Limerick professor Eoin Devereux also contributes to the notes and he vividly recalls seeing them play the Shannon-side city around the time of Ghostown's release. "When Phil Chevron performed a slowed down version of 'Faithful Departed', the penny began to drop for me. As a dedicated follower of punk, I'd railed against all the usual Irish sacred cows. Ghostown, however, convinced me that even in my young mind, that history is not the preserve of the powerful. Forty years on, Ghostown stands as a sonic and lyrical testimony to the hidden histories of the dispossessed."

The Radiators splintered and eventually split in 1981 and Chevron went on to become a key part of The Pogues. The band reformed - as The Radiators from Space - for 2006's Trouble Pilgrim. Chevron died after a short illness in 2013 and it was said that he took comfort in how revered Ghostown had become.

The 40th anniversary edition of Ghostown is out now

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