Strange Passion: Early Irish experimentalism gets its close-up

Written by: Daniel Gray

Like a cheeky kid sat in the bold corner after smushing his Barnie crisps into the dog, this is our period of reflection. Between the Where Were You? photobook and documentaries like Joyful Slog and As An Talamh recently shedding light on Irish music subculture past, however, the emphasis is less about learning what we did wrong, but remembering what we did right and subsequently completely forgot about. The latest document of our past is Strange Passion, a trove of deep-buried and long-forgotten songs from Dublin’s post-punk and early electronic scene.

Simon Reynolds’ exhaustive Rip It Up And Start Again study into international post-punk music and culture underlines a rich experimental diversity as a result of the DIY spirit championed by punk combined with regional, cultural voices being aired for the first time. Post-punk welcomed both the auteur and the amateur, and Strange Passion represents both camps. Released, fittingly, through British label Finders Keepers, the significantly in-depth liner notes make this a buy-don’t-torrent release. We talked to compiler Darren McCreesh ahead of its release next month.

How did you go about sourcing the music from these bands? Was it based out of stuff you were aware of before, or did you find yourself discovering new old bits as you went along?

The process started three years ago, it came out of conversations we were having with Andy Votel at Finders Keepers. I have an interest in the whole post-punk era, from a sociological, cultural, as well as musical perspective. I started digging a little bit, and getting introduced to Irish stuff through a friend of mine, Gary O’Neill, who put out Where Were You?. He introduced me to Chant! Chant! Chant!, Operating Theatre, and the Threat, and I was completely blown away. I’ve been buying music for 20 years, and I didn’t know anything about this scene. I knew that My Bloody Valentine, U2, The Virgin Prunes had come out of it, but didn’t know any other bands from it. And it was as good as similar music coming out of the States and the UK at the time, although really had regional trademarks also.
I started investigating online, got in touch with the guys from the bands, who started introducing me to even more stuff from the time, and to fanzines like Vox, which is a rich resource of material. The guy who put together Vox, Dave Clifford, is a really reliable filter for music from that time that was more avant-garde. Through him I found out about Stano, as he’d put out his first record. Stano is really interesting in that he’s not musically trained, he’s trying to fit colours into sound – he’s got synesthesia, and his music really does reflect that. They worked through a trial and error filter, which you can hear in the music. Not quite Outsider, but veering towards that.
Roger Doyle’s the daddy of them all. He’s a composer, he was a pioneer of electronic and tape music here in the 70s, and then he started collaborating with Olwen Fouré, who’s a performer. Their concept was “let’s investigate interdisciplinary performance and art, but also, let’s be a pop band”. So he worked through a pop milieu, trying to fit this electronic and compositional expertise into that. It’s idiosyncratic.

The post-punk era was a fertile time not just for music, but for the growth of independent music and structures that would allow for it too, but was there a much smaller network in Ireland at the time?

It was actually quite extensive. For pre-Internet times, a lot of participants had a real modernist impulse, they wanted to move on to the next thing, so with a lot of Irish post-punk bands they’d break up after the first single came out and move on. A lot of it might come down to the fact that around 83/84 U2 were bullocking through internationally meaning there was an influx of A&R people looking for the next U2, which leveled off some of that idiosyncrasy that was prevailing. Bands started trying to brand themselves as route out of Ireland – there were still some emerging – Pleasure Cell, Guernica…

Microdisney?

Oh, Microdisney from Cork were actually from this era. I found them really difficult to build into this because the scene in Cork was so different. It’s worthy of separate investigation.

Stano, Maurice, and Rommel The Dog

It’s funny how fragmented it was back then.

It was quite. Belfast was very power-punk orientated, but I was still able to locate acts like Dogmatic Element, who are incredible. They didn’t belong in the North, or the South. Another guy in the North, Rod Veigh, was doing electronic music, but we couldn’t license his stuff. Barry Warner in Limerick was a school kid obsessed with Human League, Heaven 17, the Sheffield sound. All he had was a four track, a mini Korg, and a guitar…

He’d fit in now.

He’s the original Irish bedroom artist. He used chocolate tins to create beats, which you can hear on Discoland. It’s dark, it’s almost coldwavey. It’s a really raw example of the DIY impulse, a naive kind of attempt that succeeds. It’s a really memorable tune. He pressed it onto cassette, thirty copies, and sold them to his friends in school. And that was it. He ended up recording with Virgin Prunes. He even played on the Late Late Show.

From a historian’s point of view, did you find yourself joining the dots between these artists and the future lineage of Irish music?

Completely. One of my motivations was to build up a greater awareness of underground music across our history, fill in these gaps. We ignored it at the time but – listen to it. I’ve tried to contextualize it for people, so they can appreciate it themselves. There’s a lot of talk about how monocultural we are, but there’s proof here that demonstrates the opposite. This was a very difficult time socially and economically, we were very patriarchal, hegemonic, Church-led. There was an overwhelming sense of patriarchy, I lived on the border when there were soldiers in the street, it felt like we were fenced in. There was a desire for change that was expressed in the music, but also in new media. RTE had shows like Youngline that gave a platform for this music, Dave Fanning on radio. RTE has a rich archive of content for these kinds of bands. Back then, Virgin Prunes were on the Late Late, Roger Doyle on the Arts Show, SM Corporation on Anything Goes. However, it was so expensive to record music and get it out, even though it was a lot more accessible. The knowledge and the means to break through wasn’t there. A lot of these bands travelled to Rough Trade.
Researching this is shining a light on stuff then, but I want people to reflect on what are we missing out on today? What are we underappreciating today? Bands like Twinkranes, Spilly Walker, Rollers/Sparkers, Thread Pulls – they are niche, but they deserve more attention. It’s positive to note, though, that we’ve got a resurgent scene at the moment, we’re not trying to appeal to the market so much. People are focussing more on their craft.

Strange Passion is released July 16th. 

Photos by Gary O’Neill

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