The bands that nearly made it
Dave Fanning looks back at the countless Irish bands who were trumpeted as being the new U2, but never quite took on the world
If you're an aspiring rock band looking for a guarantee, it might be best to assume you're not gonna make it, since only about one out of 500 do. But what does 'make it' mean? Make it to the stage of Whelan's, the 'Late Late', an album, a European tour, a number one at home, to the top of the US Billboard charts, to a week of sold-out gigs in Madison Square Gardens?
Through the years, it was never my real concern if a band made it or not, but it always felt good when they took it to the next level.
On night-time 2fm, over a few decades, myself and producer Ian Wilson brought an annual average of 40 bands into the studios for sessions. For any band with any ambition, it was an important box to tick. Whether the session took, or helped to take, them further, our goal was always about a good session.
It wasn't our concern if the band broke up within the year – good thing too, because so many did.
In many ways, it was often less a question of talent than time, place and circumstance which determined whether a band would make it or not.
For instance, in the wake of U2's success, there was a naive and totally unrealistic expectation across the board that the next batch could 'do a U2'. So, forgetting the 1990s and the Noughties, where the pattern continued and continues, let's take a small selection from an earlier decade, which might jog some memory vaults.
Take your pick from any of the acts that popped up simultaneously, immediately after or later on in the wake of the big one from the northside of Dublin: In Tua Nua, DC Nien, Cry Before Dawn, Cactus World News, Into Paradise, Above the Thunderclouds, Kathmandu, Light a Big Fire, Whipping Boy, The Vipers, Tearjerkers, Toasted Heretic, Tuesday Blue, Rudi, Power of Dreams, My Little Funhouse, Microdisney, The Fat Lady Sings, Fountainhead, Fatima Mansions, Big Self, Black Velvet Band, Blue in Heaven, The Atrix, Tokyo Olympics, Stump, Something Happens, Sack, Rhythm Kings, The Prayer Boat, The Outcasts, Mama's Boys, Golden Horde, Engine Alley, Energy Orchard, Bogey Boys, A House, and so on.
I'm sure that every one of these acts could point to some article somewhere which trumpeted them, potentially at least, as the Next Big Thing. Certainly, at the beginning of all this, The Blades and The Undertones got enough good press to take them through every upheaval.
The Blades are a great example of a band which perfectly captured a moment in time. There's was a glorious 15 minutes, all of it at home in Ireland and most of it in Dublin.
While U2 were on the up, both bands played a series of four Tuesday nights at Dublin's Baggot Inn. I introduced the bands and DJed before and after the sets. The Blades had a bunch of singles behind them, all of which can safely be regarded as classic Irish singles.
Paul Cleary was a great singer/songwriter and the band had a strong working-class following, but their live thrill didn't really translate to the first album. At those Baggot gigs, lots of people came just to see The Blades and left before U2 came on.
It was different with The Undertones. They released four great albums, each one more sophisticated than the last, but the more they grew and the better they got, the less interest people had.
While John O'Neill – not the only great writer in the group – kept churning out amazing songs; teenage kicks, teenage angst, heartbreak and adolescence still ruled the lyric department. Hence, the inspiration they brilliantly drew from soul and Motown for album number four was lost on the fans who preferred the earlier pop-rock and post-punk music, leading to the break-up of the band just a few months later.
But they made it, didn't they?
Four albums, numerous tours and a string of chart hits, with 'Teenage Kicks' a bona-fide, 'A'-division classic for the ages. They've been back this century with a couple of fine albums, but any hope of gaining entry to the premiership was gone by the summer of 1983.
Maybe it wasn't all about making it, but much more about creating awareness and a world where bands could exist, rehearse, play live, thrive, flourish and simply enjoy an environment where they could make music and learn.
Night-time 2fm played a small, not insignificant part in all of this. On pirate radio, the most consistent feature on the programmes I presented was the airing of new Irish bands, mostly on demo tapes.
When 2fm started, I joined up with producer Ian Wilson, who was equally committed to furthering new young local bands. We were both hugely aware of the vast advantage RTE had over the pirates. We had proper studios where groups could record sessions for the show.
I'd been pushing new Irish music on the pirates for the previous few years and here was the chance to take it further.
In many ways, it had always been the centrepiece of the shows. I'd been playing Irish music, the officially released stuff from established or semi-established acts, but the big emphasis for me had always been the demo tapes, the new bands that never got a chance to be heard anywhere else.
It was time to shift it up a gear.
RTE had always used its state-of-the-art facilities and sound engineers to record major classical works, with the RTE Concert Orchestra pretty much annexing the lavish and spacious Studio 1 for rehearsals and performances.
However, the smaller, rough-and-ready Studio 8 was frequently empty, and Ian donned his public service hat to demand that we be allowed to use it for sessions by up-and-coming groups.
The RTE bosses were not at all keen on this at first. The sessions would cost money but not make any. Why should they give up valuable studio time for no financial return?
But Ian was on a mission and argued that the hip quotient and profile for the network would be invaluable. So the Fanning Sessions were up and running a few weeks after the station started broadcasting.
Ian deserves the utmost credit for his prescience and persistence, because it soon became clear that the sessions were as crucial to the show as they were to the bands.
The routine was that the band usually came in on a Monday, adding vocals and doing the mixing the next day.
Suddenly, bands that no one had ever heard of, who had never even had a sniff of a decent studio, could do their stuff and have four professionally recorded and mixed songs aired on national radio.
In no time at all, a session on the 2fm – then Radio 2 – rock show became the first rung on the ladder for new young Irish bands. It was their apprenticeship.
They would then send the tapes to record companies to try to get signed, and while successful submissions were still rare, it was even more rare to find a press release accompanying the debut album of a newly signed band that didn't mention a Fanning Session, an activity that played a large part of RTE's public service remit.
From the day we launched the sessions, demo tapes came in from all over the country. If I said on-air that I was going to a gig, I'd arrive to be met by bands waving their tapes. Once, on top of the Eiffel Tour with a friend, an Irish guy came shuffling over and gave me a tape.
For the first session, we picked the band I'd played most on demo tape for the previous few years. That was U2.
But the bands were all serious about what they did, and they were never stupid or even presumptuous enough to think that world domination was just around the corner.
'Making it' was a dream, and no doubt a goal, for every one of them, but in a one-step-at-a-time career, every move was fraught with reality, and reality told everyone that 'making it' was only granted to a lucky few.
Dubliner Gerry Leonard probably didn't set out to be a journeyman guitarist, but that's what he is. After his time with The Spies and Above the Thunderclouds, he formed Hinterland, a three-piece who started in 1987, released an album and broke up in 1994.
He hooked up with David Bowie and is featured wielding his axe on Bowie's much- talked-about comeback album, 'The Next Day', and is currently working with Suzanne Vega.
And take the story of LiR, who for many really were the next whatever. Legal wranglings, management issues and financial losses all contributed to their eventual implosion but, for a longer time than most bands who fail to get where they really want to go, they were always supposed to be near enough to the big breakthrough.
They released three critically acclaimed, but commercially underachieving, albums.
This month sees the release of a movie about their particular roller-coaster called 'Good Cake, Bad Cake'. Director Shimmy Marcus recently put it like this to 'Hot Press': "To admire a band for their courage and persistence, it comes down to a question of 'how long do you keep dreaming?'.
"At what point do you give up the dream, or do you just decide that you just don't care how long it takes?"
Twenty-five years after they started, they're still on their epic journey, thus the movie's tagline, '99pc of bands will never make it. But some will never give up'.
One guy who never knew he'd made it is Detroit musician Rodriguez. His humbling, remarkable, uplifting story deservedly won the Best Documentary Oscar this year.
Two failed albums and obscurity beckoned. Yet for decades, he never knew that he was a genuine superstar in South Africa and now, thanks to the documentary, his warm-hearted story is gaining him new fans every day.
The Rodriguez story is, of course, unique – a one-off. I can't think of anyone else who made it huge over a number of decades while simultaneously oblivious to even a whiff of any of it as it happened.
I bumped into Gilbert O'Sullivan in London last month. The Waterford-born singer-songwriter ruled the charts for a number of years in the 1970s.
Songs such as 'Clair' and 'Get Down' kept him high in the charts, and genuine classics such as 'Nothing Rhymed' and 'Alone Again (Naturally)' helped him to deservedly take the UK Number One Singer title in 1972, while also topping the US singles and album charts.
Since 1980, his nine studio albums haven't registered on many bestsellers' lists but, he told me, since all he wants to do is write and perform his pop songs – for which he's in huge demand around the world, particularly Japan – he couldn't be happier.
That's what he does and that's what he wants to do. He 'made it' once; you get the impression that he doesn't need to make it again.
If, for me, one musician can embody it all – whatever it is – let it be Stephen Ryan. He played with The Stars of Heaven in the 1980s and The Revenants in the 1990s. He wrote great songs; his voice was plaintive, authoritative, lived-in, resigned, world-weary and just right. He craned up to the mic and I liked the way he held his guitar.
The Stars of Heaven were successful, made great Byrds-influenced music and were rightly lauded over a two-album, five-year career. The Revenants received less recognition but they deserve as much praise.
In nine years of the 12-date Rollercoaster Irish tour, I travelled the highways and byways of Ireland and heard maybe about 35 bands overall, each one 10 times at least. The Revenants were my favourite of those. They never headlined.
By the time the main band started to play, they were more than halfway home, back to Dublin for a few hours' sleep before the proper job and the nine-to-five the next day.
Their second and final album, 'Septober Nowonder', has some fine tracks but, better still, try the first release, 'Horse of a Different Colour', and start at the beginning. 'Let's Get Falling Down' is not a drinking song but a great song about drinking.
I met a lot of Stephen Ryans on my travels – most, of course, not as talented; singers, guitarists, musicians in general who, through no fault of anything, never made it beyond the scene they were involved in but were, of course, often as good and as talented as the very best who did.
There were so many memorable gigs in so many different venues from so many different bands. And there still are.
Making music is everything; 'making it' is just a bonus.