Tuesday 15 October 2019

'We might have done some things differently' - The Blades, arguably the finest group in the country in the 80s, are back


The Blades in the 1980s
The Blades in the 1980s
A cut above: Paul Cleary, right and Jake Reilly from The Blades. Photo: Damien Eagers
John Meagher

John Meagher

Paul Cleary is looking back some 40 years, to a period when his band were seen as one of the country's brightest prospects. It was, he insists, all about the music for The Blades.

"It was never about the sex and drugs," he says. "It was all about the rock 'n' roll. Maybe that sounds boring, but the only reason I was up on stage was for the music, it wasn't to get girls or anything else."

Music was all encompassing to Cleary back then - and, at 59, it still is - but he laments the fact that for the average kid today, it may not be quite as important as it was for his generation.

"There are so many other things to be into now," he says. "It's fine in one way, but they're missing out on great music."

His two oldest children have little interest in music but his youngest - an 11-year-old daughter - has bucked the trend. But, he says, even the eldest pair say nice things about The Blades to him.

And what a band. For a few years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, they were arguably the finest, most-admired group in the country and, in 1985, when they finally got around to releasing their debut album, The Last Man in Europe, it was critically adored.

It should have been the launching point to move the band on to the next level but, instead, they split up the following year, shortly after releasing Raytown Revisited. Today, this compilation of perfect three-minute pop singles from 1980 to 1985 - named after the Dublinese name for Cleary's native Ringsend - is widely considered to be one of the greatest Irish albums of all time.

Core members Cleary, bassist Brian Foley and drummer Jake Reilly, regrouped in 2013 for a pair of Yuletide concerts and the reaction was rapturous. They have played together the odd time since then, and there was a new album, too - Modernised, released in 2016. Another date is pencilled in for next weekend, and Cleary says he can't wait to turn the years back once more.

"We don't like to look too much into the future," Cleary says, "and it's harder to get everyone together, but when we do play, it's as exciting as it was back in the day."

Reilly, who has joined Cleary in a Dublin city centre bar to talk all things Blades, agrees.

"You'd be a bit nervous before you go on stage," he says, "but that's a good thing. You feel a bit wound up - and as a drummer you have to watch that or you'll play too fast."

The Dublin music scene of the late 1970s was a fertile place thanks to bands like The Radiators from Space, The Boomtown Rats and a certain group who had changed their name from The Hype to U2.

"But there was some pretty bad stuff then, too," Reilly says. "It wasn't all great, but the good stuff was really special."

Reilly had been a fan of The Blades before auditioning for the part of drummer after original percussionist Pat Larkin had quit in 1981. Foley, a member of another young Dublin band, The Vipers, was recruited after Cleary's brother, Larry, had left the band.

"That was the beginning of something new," Cleary says, "and clichéd as it sounds, we went in a new direction."

The songs incorporated elements such as brass and there was a politicised aspect to tracks like 'Downmarket', which succinctly captured what it was like to live in a recession-hit Ireland with bleak prospects. "Everything is black and white and grey," Cleary sung on this classic home-grown single, whose melodies and arrangements are far jauntier than the grim subject matter might have suggested.

Larry Cleary left for a new life in Japan shortly after quitting the band and he lived there until his death earlier this year.

"He was my older brother and I looked up to him," Cleary says. "Both he and my father had great taste in music and I learned a lot from them. I had a dream that we would be a songwriting partnership like Lennon and McCartney."

"He was such a cool guy," Reilly adds. "I remember one gig where things were going wrong and everyone was feeling the strain, and I looked over at him and he didn't have a care in the world."

Once he quit The Blades, he quit music and Cleary said there was no thought to inviting him to rejoin for the reunion shows. It was always going to feature the people who had made The Last Man in Europe - if they wanted to be part of the reunion.

Reilly got a call out of the blue in 2013 and he was in.

"Jake has never been in an another band, just The Blades," Cleary says.

His friend pipes up: "The only drumming I did was on the kit at home. I just had to get on with my life and make a living once The Blades finished."

The drummer went into the construction industry and runs a building conservation company today. Cleary, by contrast, jokes that he never did a "proper" job. "I wasn't bright enough to be an accountant," he deadpans. After stints as frontman of his post-Blades bands, The Partisans, Cleary released a solo album and paid the bills by working on soundtrack work with Frontier Films. Curiously, he also made a wage by devising and setting questions for RTÉ's 1990s quiz show, Blackboard Jungle. There was another quiz show - long forgotten - that he worked on with Brendan O'Carroll before Mrs Brown came calling.

Whenever one thinks of The Blades, it's hard not to wonder what might have been had they got the breaks - or if Cleary had the pig-headed determination to 'make it' no matter what. In 1979, they shared a residency in the Baggot Inn with U2 and, back then, some might have considered Cleary and friends to be the greater prospect.

It wasn't to be. If he has any regrets about how things panned out - and a succession of record company woes didn't help - he says he's made peace with the past now. "I'm proud of the songs we did - although if I could go back, we might have done some of them differently - and it's great to be able to get out on stage in 2018 and have people there who want to see us."

Both Reilly and Cleary say the thrill of playing live hasn't abated.

"We used to play the Magnet [the now defunct pub venue on Pearse Street, not far from Cleary's Ringsend] in the early days and I remember after a few weeks there was a queue out the door and down the street a bit. They were there to see us - I still get that excitement and maybe the day I don't is the day to stop doing this."

The Blades play The Academy, Dublin, on December 15

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