Saturday 17 March 2018

Trip to Tipp: John Meagher on the legacy of the music festival on its 25 year anniversary

Twenty five years ago this weekend saw the country's first multi-day music festival take place. We recall how Féile changed the way we experienced music forever

Start of the festival era: Revellers gather in Thurles town centre for the start of Féile 90
Start of the festival era: Revellers gather in Thurles town centre for the start of Féile 90
Van Morrison
Imelda May performing at the modern day crown jewel of the music calendar, Electric Picnic
John Meagher

John Meagher

The germ of the music festivals we know today - with their multiple stage set-ups, gourmet food offerings and carefully curated line-ups of international and domestic acts - was sown in the most unlikely way.

Backtrack to September 1989 when Tipperary's hurlers won the All-Ireland Final. The homecoming party was held at Semple Stadium, Thurles, a place some think of as the cradle of the GAA. Joe Dolan was the musical attraction on the night and Michael Lowry TD was struck by the atmosphere the crooner from Mullingar managed to whip up. With the venue more than £1m in debt after rebuilding to host the 'Centenary Final' five years before, Lowry - who was chairman of the Semple Stadium Management Committee - thought revenue could be generated by holding other music events, this time for paying audiences.

He approached Aiken Promotions and MCD and the latter showed most interest. Féile 90 was born and took place in Semple Stadium 25 years ago this weekend.

It hadn't been easy convincing everyone in the town of the merits of the venture, and Lowry subsequently told the story of an old hurling fanatic from up the road who was aghast that not only would young people be dancing on the hallowed turf of Semple, but British bands would be playing there too.

Three-day tickets cost £29.50 and could only be purchased in a limited number of record shops or at the stadium itself on the Friday. The ease of online booking was still several years away.

That first Féile boasted 19 acts, with just four - Meat Loaf, Deacon Blue, Big Country and Maria McKee - from overseas. It was the festival that would truly propel The Saw Doctors into the public consciousness and it featured such long-forgotten domestic attractions as Thee Amazing Colossal Men and Energy Orchard.

There were no catering facilities to speak of; the cuisine tended to be ham sandwiches and milky tea supplied by enterprising locals. The campsite was primitive by today's standards and some revellers paid to pitch tents in people's front gardens.

Will Leahy, now a 2fm DJ, attended the following year, encouraged, he says, by the presence on the bill of Wendy James and Transvision Vamp. "I was a too-posh-to-push type of festival goer and instead of camping I drove over from Limerick each day. My first memory was a sea of cans everywhere in the town square and people falling around the place. And it was a world away from festivals today in every way you can think of - there was just one stage, the idea of other tents and comedy shows and all of that would have been alien to us then."

Leahy has just completed a revealing documentary - Féile: The Untold Story of the Trip to Tipp - which will be broadcast on Radio 1 at 2pm on Bank Holiday Monday. He believes that without Féile, today's live landscape full of festivals would look different, or at the very least, be in a less developed state. "It grew quickly. The 1991 festival was more ambitious in terms of acts than the previous one and by 1993, there were two stages and some really significant international names."

Tony O'Brien, who was the Irish Independent's music critic at the time, says Féile felt revolutionary because nobody had tried to do a multi-day event of this type before. "It really was like Sodom and Gomorrah when I walked up through the town and I'm sure some of the locals were horrified by it, but the atmosphere was good and people were enjoying themselves.

"Each year that went on was more professional than the year before, probably because people's expectations kept growing. The facilities definitely improved, but I still have memories of young guys urinating in the tunnels under the stands."

Féile ran in Thurles for five years, over which time the debt on Semple Stadium was completely paid off. Cork's Páirc Uí Chaoimh - which had hosted Siamsa Cois Laoi in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s - hosted it in 1995 (arguably its finest year, in purely line-up terms) and slimmed down versions took place at Dublin's Point Depot in 1996 and Semple again in '97. "These things tend to have a natural lifespan and it was clear its days were behind it when it was staged at the Point," O'Brien says. "But it would have shown promoters that there was a big market in Ireland for events such as this and the only surprise was that it took a few years before they did something as ambitious again."

Witnness, essentially Féile for a new generation, was created by MCD in 2000 and held at Fairyhouse Racecourse before moving to Punchestown in its fourth year. It was rebranded Oxegen (for sponsorship reasons) in 2004 and was held every year, bar one, until 2013. Electric Picnic, launched in 2004, ushered in the notion of the 'boutique' festival, and spawned a host of smaller festivals, aimed at music lovers with plenty of disposable income and a yen for organic food and craft beer. Electric Picnic, which is still held in the picturesque surrounds of Stradbally Hall, Co Laois, remains the crown jewel in the Irish summer music calendar.

"The music business has changed beyond all recognition since Féile," says Ollie Jennings, The Saw Doctors' manager. "There was a sort of innocence to it then that's not there now, and there were greater opportunities for Irish bands to build their profile than there is today. It can be so difficult to get noticed today."

In much the same way that top-flight English football was a place for 'home-grown' players to prosper before the advent of the Premier League, Jennings says the proliferation of media and the advent of the internet made getting into the charts so much more difficult. "The Saw Doctors released 'N17' in January 1990 and it didn't do well. We only got to play Féile because the record company we were signed to for our first two singles had a connection to MCD. The lads actually worked the Friday and Saturday putting wristbands on people, and then were first on on the Sunday. Because there were no other stages, anybody who was in the stadium then would have heard them play and it all took off from there. 'I Useta Love Her' charted the week after and then crept up the chart until it was at number one - and it stayed there for nine weeks."

Will Leahy says it is striking that while the live circuit was poorly developed in 1990 and Irish music fans had limited choice, the record industry, by contrast, was at the peak of its powers. "They were making an awful lot of money," he says. "I have CDs at home with the stickers for £18.99 still on. Now, it's roles reversed and the power has shifted to the promoters. Look at U2 and Madonna signing big deals with promoters - that would have been unthinkable in the days when Féile first started."

If the album was king back in 1990, Leahy believes its place on the throne has been taken by the live show - as the hype surrounding last weekend's sold-out Ed Sheeran concerts at Croke Park so palpably demonstrated.

Ollie Jennings says the profound change in the way we consume music can be gleaned from the business model adapted by one of the younger acts he manages. "Jamie Harrison is essentially a professional busker who plays cities like Liverpool and Edinburgh for a month at a time. He'd make a couple of hundred euro on a Saturday which is more than some bands would be paid for playing down the bill in certain festivals. He finds that people are quite happy to give him €2 if they stop to watch him for a few minutes, but they mightn't be bothered to spend €10 to buy a new CD. They're happy with the likes of Spotify, but will spend for the live experience."

That live experience has grown to such a point that Ireland, particularly Dublin, is a must-play destination for all international acts, be they Katy Perry or Kendrick Lamar. This weekend is a case in point. One of Summer 2015's innumerable festivals, Beatyard in Dún Laoghaire features such talents as Neneh Cherry, Sister Sledge and Four Tet. And, unlike Féile's unsophisticated food offerings and extra-curricular amenities, Beatyard is making much out of the presence of single-origin coffee specialist 3fe and something called 'reggae yoga'.

Despite being spoilt for choice, today's punters are missing out on some old-fashioned charms according to Tony O'Brien. "The early Féiles were rites of passage for many. They were rough and ready but they were great fun and they were affordable. And there's something to be said for the one-stage set up for everything to build to the headliner."

Will Leahy says that when he was making the documentary, he was struck by how much affection there still is for Féile. "There's a whole generation that feel very proprietorial about it. Festival goers used to the standards of today would probably hate it, but it meant a lot at the time."

Féile facts

* Weekend tickets for Féile 90 cost £29.50, but three years later the price had jumped to £45 - possibly a reflection of the much larger proportion of international bands playing.

* According to Will Leahy's Féile documentary, Van Morrison (inset) demanded that the backstage area be cleared of other bands and their entourages when it was time for him to headline in the inaugural year. A red carpet was rolled out by promotors much to the merriment of other acts on the bill.

* Bryan Adams may have been one of the most popular singers in the world in the summer of 1991, with his song '(Everything I Do) I Do it For You' seemingly taking up permanent residency at the top of the chart in both Britain and Ireland. And yet, the Canadian had to play second fiddle to Galway headliners The Stunning.

* Chris de Burgh was an unexpected choice of headliner for the Sunday night in 1993 and delivered the most controversial performance of the weekend when he brought a well-endowed, barely clad dancer on stage for 'Patricia the Stripper'.

* After Féile was staged in Cork and Dublin, Semple Stadium hosted the festival for the last time in 1997, but it's popularity had waned and it was just a one-day event. Three years later, the multi-day festival bandwagon - now known as Witnness - showed up in Fairyhouse, Co Meath.

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