Thursday, November 16, 2006
If Underachievement were a glossy magazine struggling to revive flagging sales and attract those elusive advertisers, the above would be the model headline it would use. But we are under no such burden here and we may undertake a frank examination of why Ireland, touted as one of the coolest nations that has ever been known to man - Catholics, Protestants and Dissenters included - can routinely produce such awful music. I have many friends who are Irish musicians so I have shied from pointing this out before but I feel that now the time has come to say that the Irish, north and south, east and west are no bleddy good at that rock yoke, a good fifty years after it was invented. It is a bit worrying when the showband days, and the names of Dickie Rock, the Swarbriggs, The Indians, Brendan Boyer and others, have not receded into insignificance, as they would have by now in a country possessed of a stronger popular culture. But the aforementioned are still there, their ghosts still half-corporeal and worthy of a Brian Carthy-narrated mention in any history of the sorry tale of Irish music.
There will be those that point out the good stuff along the way, and it is true, it does exist - or has existed - My Bloody Valentine, The Undertones, Stiff Little Fingers (for the early part of their career), Lizzy, Fatima Mansions and its various offshoots, The Chalets, The Jimmy Cake, A House, The Whipping Boy, early Therapy?, even a bit of Toasted Heretic and those Corkonian jokers The Sultans of Ping and The Frank and Walters. Even Power of Dreams were all right circa August 1990. But a country should be judged upon its continuous output over a long period, and a comparison with English-speaking countries of similar size is instructive. We could say Jamaica, but considering that it invented two whole genres of pop music (and several sub-genres) and that it fed off a close cousin of the music that shaped jazz, blues and rock, we might discount on grounds of general fairness. We're not really in that league. So let us move on to Scotland, a country of similar surface area and population (if we count the six counties, which Seanachie never hesitates to do).
Our Celtic cousins have produced a few shockers over the years, such as Runrig, the dismayingly popular Travis, Texas and Big Country - their answers to The Cranberries and U2 respectively and the only cases where they have matched our mediocrity squarely with some of their own - but overall the Scots have been far more impressive in the field of popular music than the more cheerful Paddies. One need only run through a comparative list to illustrate this: they had The Bay City Rollers, we had Boyzone (and Westlife); they have Teenage Fanclub, we have The Thrills; they had Deacon Blue, we still have The Corrs; they have Primal Scream, we have The 4 of Us; they have Boards of Canada, we have Republic of Loose; they have John Martyn, we have Damien Rice; they have Franz Ferdinand, we have Director; they had The Melvins and The Vaselines, we had Cactus World News and An Emotional Fish; they had Lloyd Cole and the Commotions and Aztec Camera, we had The Stunning and The Fat Lady Sings; they have Mull Historical Society, we have Mundy; they had The Proclaimers, we had The Commitments; they had The Average White Band, we had to make do with Samantha Mumba. It's a depressing roll-call and though we did match them once or twice with The Jimmy Cake for their Mogwai and My Bloody Valentine for their Jesus and Mary Chain (sorry, Jocks, but we won that one) we have been shown up for clueless amateur dabblers in the rock'n'roll world.
So what is the reason? Lack of musicality? Well hardly any more than the Scots with their history of struggling under the yoke of dour Taliban-like Calvinism, which would make the rosaries-on-your-ovaries approach of the Irish Catholic Church seem a breeze in comparison. And when you consider that many of the most exhilarating Irish bands of the past thirty years such as The Dubliners, Horslips, The Pogues and Planxty were groups with a grounding in traditional Irish music, perhaps the real problem is a wilful neglect of an existing musical heritage which can feed into more modern forms. A Guardian interview with supreme idiot Bono, about fifteen years ago, had the developing world's favourite ageing rocker say: 'I'm really into the Irish thing, but not really the 'tin whistle' Irish thing', all appropriately vague for a man with a pre-cooked addled mind. Welsh bands such as Super Furry Animals and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci have not been afraid to brandish their cultural heritage to aid their music and the big success stories of international rock of the past couple of years, Canada and Sweden, are both cases where a distinctive national identity forms a music in the face of increasing globalised homogenisation. The Irish's greatest gift is, of course, believing their own bullshit and until we realise that we are not really cut out for pop music, like other less gifted nations, such as Spain, Italy and Turkey, we should just keep it country, as Pascal Mooney used to say. Meanwhile, here is Langerland's sensible analysis of things.