They say the past is another country, but in the case of Ireland – it’s probably more like a parallel fecking looniverse. Rashers Tierney caught up with John Byrne to talk about the strange land that gave birth to the utterly fantastic Quare Groove compilation.
Okay, so I guess the first thing that struck me about the release wasn’t even anything to do with the music – it was that absolutely stellar cover with the nun playing ping pong ball. Who came up with that, and who is this dear old sister featured getting her game on?
I decided that I wanted very specific period imagery, and also from a very specific place. It had to be from the exact same Ireland-time of the making of the music. I went scouring the charity shops for TWO things, instead of just the customary one.
Even if lots of books were rolled out here on the sod, it still surprised me how many of what I call ‘toffee-cables’ of photogs that were published on this little island. Within a few short weeks, I had amassed a small shelf-load of coffee-table pictorials of late 70’s and early 80’s Ireland.
I saw the ping-ponger penguin in a 1979 book dedicated to images of Dublin. I knew the search was over.
Can you take us back to the genesis of the record? Where did the original idea stem from? When you were talking about the project at our Notes On a Rave Dublin event, it was pretty clear that you had to sieve through a whole lot of muck to come across the gems you did. At what point did you start noticing these little diamonds in the rough and when did you think there was a release in it?
I’ve been gathering home-grown records since pretty much exactly the time of the first releases reissued on this here Quare Groove record. This Quare Groove thing itself was a happy accident though, really. About half a decade back, conversations around this kind of stuff started between myself and Colm Kenefick, one of the other Quare Groove collaborators. I gave him a CD of some of the more distinct stuff that had accidentally amassed along the way. After giving it to him, I was humming and hawing about the possibility of moving towards a collection of stuff from the era. I wasn’t confident that I had enough to go on.
Then we started to move towards a compilation a short while later. I needed an absolutely methodical approach to collating the entirety of any credible sounds from a particular era of Irish music. My brief was ‘pre-quantized’ groove music made by Irish people before house music. (pre ‘house’?!) Ireland had no James Browns or Bootsy Collinses.To get a proper strong draft to create a collection from, EVERYTHING had to be examined.
The key wild factor here was finding the odd and seemingly accidental anomalies. A search for musicians making moves outside their normal remit, and who might’ve captured it in a studio some times. A country rock guy does a southern funk number once, and never again. A folk minstrel finds Ireland’s only fusion outfit, and just for a single studio session, they monster up a single groove track.
The notes about the record online say that it “comes from a very strange place.” Can you tell me your own thoughts about that strange place? I assume you are basically talking about the historical backwater that was Ireland in the black and white days.
At the top of that time, you had the 1979 Papal Visit. Two thirds of the population on this island went to public meetings held to audience the Catholic head; a very proper show of force. The root of one particular holistic belief system and its forces might never have appeared stronger.
Then, in September 1983, the first and very bitterly fought Abortion referendum went to the polls. Never wonder for the real purpose of that Papal visit, and the sheer fear that is still instilled in the legislators of this land when it comes to the abortion complex. This has fouled and befuddled this issue across four decades to this day, as we’re more than indelibly aware of at the moment. It took them four years after that visit to present that abortion issue to the voter for the first time.
Around the exact same time the very first stirrings of clerical abuse scandals begin to pile over the parapets. Seminarians in the country’s clerical education unit began to object to ‘the attentions’ paid to some of their number by the Seminary Head, one Micheál Ledwith. In January of 1984, the country’s most famous and tragic tale of ‘auto-deliverance’ hit.
A sixteen year old school girl called Ann Lovett bled to death in her lone and shamed child-birthing. This took place in a grotto in Granard, County Longford. The ‘venue’ couldn’t have been more ironic. In April 1984, the beginning of the vile ‘Kerry Babies’ farce began to unravel, still untangling to this day.
I’ve just described the preamble to what I consider the largest societal shuffle in the history of the Irish republic, since its ‘civil war’ of six decades previous to that time. The 1980’s felt like the end of many cycles, some extending right through the centuries.
Have you ever read Send Em Home Sweatin’ by Vincent Power? It’s a great book that sort of opened my eyes to the cultural earthquake that was the show band era in Ireland. Stories of motorcades transversing seriously dodgy roads to get to dances, the church’s fear of a highly mobile youth and their ever so slightly declining grip on morality. Do you think we’ve a tendency to be a bit condescending to scenes past in Ireland?
Oddly, Vincent Power’s book has eluded me all this time. It was the first objective tome on a very objectionable subject, ha ha. It is truly and incredibly easy to be condescending on a multitude of levels towards the showband scene.
I’ve shortened my mortal foil wading through so much of it! I’ll ascribe the whole thing as a colonial hangover. A mass movement based on third hand imitation smacks of heavy under-confidence. It was allowed to burgeon unchecked for a good half a decade on into the middle 1960’s here, before audiences would consider giving anything else major attention.
I’d have to draw a line in the sand here. The showband phenomenon has not gone away from us you know? It might have quietened down a little bit in the 70’s and 80’s. However it ramped up again in the 1990’s with a vengeance. ‘Covers’ bands and country and Irish stuffing have plagued us deeply and incessantly again, since then. The latest Irish pop stars might rope in more per gig, but the likes of Daniel O’Donnell, Nathan Carter et al; I’m willing to bet things like this are having the last laugh financially!
What kind of scenes (if any…) did the acts you featured in Quare Groove find shelter in or were they total loners?
By the time of the Quare Groove bands, there was a reasonably healthy gigging scene. More interesting musical forms could get a regular stage in the cities of Ireland at least, on some level. The vast majority of the Quare Groove bands were regular gigging units. The band that made our opening track (Pumphouse Gang, or ‘Stagalee’ as they were more commonly known) had two or three weekly residencies in Dublin city centre alone, and right throughout the year.
They were free to play round the country on the other nights, and very frequently did. An odd thing that folks these days might find hard to countenance: Back in this era, daytime Irish mainstream radio play was accessible for local bands making records independently.
At the time, it felt like home-grown records being a hard won thing, it was an automatic duty to try and give them airtime. Now obviously commercial consideration would win out, and more commercial forms could even get as far as rotation play, while other things might not have gotten so much time. Still, the will was there. This disappeared in the second half of the 1980’s.
The artists and acts featured on the compilation had their eyes and ears wide open. How were they plugging themselves in to broader international trends? Was it travel? Was it people bringing back tales and sounds from abroad? How were they plugging in?
Back in this period, the power of the English music papers could not be underestimated. These publications were in every newsagent’s. They prided themselves on authoritative coverage back then, and in a fairly egalitarian and all round way. This might surprise younger folks sniffing at the tabloid state that these music papers have long since rendered themselves unto.
Here’s another thing that could surprise people too. In this early 80’s period, there existed a cultural imperative that dictated absolute originality in music-making. This was deemed the only true credible goal of a music maker. People who read these papers regularly were well imbued with that sensibility. That changed shortly after, and forever. It’s a coincidence that all the records we’re reissuing were basically Irish only releases. It’s also a coincidence that all the bands were domiciled here when they made the records.
If any bands travelled, they didn’t much further than next door, to the U.K., if at all. So guerrilla radar was needed to get at the un-Irish activities! I was lauding the airplay policy for local music here in the last paragraph. The same thing was not true for music in either a genre or ‘outernational’ sense. Music content was quite constricted on the radio here in pre-digital days. We were lucky in our ability to pick up foreign broadcasts like John Peel however.
The title of the release Quare Groove is a great play on the term “rare groove.” That’s one of those music pigeonholing terms I’ve seen bandied about for about a zillion years but am still left scratching my head at. What the hell is “rare groove” and how does your compilation fit into that general movement of unearthing lost classics?
Rare Groove emanated from London in the 1980’s. I witnessed a lot of Latin and groove music spinners in the hipper cafés and haunts of Portobello and Camden Town, when I first hit there in the middle of the 1980’s. Shop/labels like Soul Jazz and Honest Jons are going strongly out of the town since that time. I guess we could cross the Atlantic concurrently with the scene propagated by hip hop sampling. Anyway, Rare Groove does exactly what it says on the din (not tin!). It is rare or obscure groove music, deserving of a wider audience. I’d like to say that our record fits deeply into this genre and ethic. Online wants lists for original records from Quare Groove went from flat-zero to literally hundreds of desiring parties in a couple of years; I guess that proves it!
I meant to throw in a question too about what’s next for the project. Ye are doing a repress already I hear and is there another compilation in the pipeline?
We are working on a number of other Irish music projects right now. There isn’t anything set in stone for a Quare Groove II yet, but we’re on the cusp of discussion on this very subject. We’ve just collated all the recent discoveries, and Quare Groove 1 is a half an hour out of more than six hours of sounds, and still growing. There are a handful of things needed to cross off the list. Either way, that’s way more than enough for more than one more release.
Cheers to Olan for the pics. Get onto All City in Dublin for your best bet to grab a copy of the comp.