Dublin 1976-’77. Bleak, uncompromising and unpromising. The price for looking even a little bit different is getting your head kicked in. Conform, conform, conform was the motto of the time. A motto so ingrained in us that it didn’t have to be spoken out loud.
Then came the early angry shouts and snarls of punk, often accompanied by music that was sublime. If the cliché of punk is that it was loud and fast and turbo-charged, it also prompted some of the most beautiful, joyful, creative and delicate sounds. In the years that followed for every Oi band you had sensitive souls like the Cocteau Twins, Durutti Column and Tracey Thorn. This transformation from punk to odes of pure joy is perfectly encapsulated in the work of Siousxie and the Banshees.
And the band that was a major part of bringing the joy of punk and its possibilities to Ireland was the Radiators from Space. Like the Banshees, you can hear the journey from anger to sensitivity, from neon lights to silky shadows in the first two Radiator’s albums.
If the Radiators were the butterflies, albeit weather-beaten and scarred ones, at the punky ugly bug ball, the subliminal theme to everything they did was confront and never confirm. That’s worth repeating, especially because of how much it mattered in great Dublin at the time. Confront and never conform. Confront and never confirm.
Naturally the Radiator’s cast a long shadow over the Trouble Pilgrims. Steve Averill and Pete Holidai are the survivors of the Ghostown. But here the iconic pair of Irish rockers are not just surviving, they’re positively thriving. The reason for this must be due to the strength of their collaborators, their fellow Trouble Pilgrims. In fact, Trouble Pilgrims now are almost an Irish post-punk supergroup. Except only us locals knew they were superstars. They were our superstars and we didn’t need the NME to tell us. We had Vox and Heat and all the great Irish ‘zines.
Bren Lynott was a member of The End and The Cathedral. Johnny Bonnie was in Those Handsome Devils, The Baby Snakes while Tony St Ledger was in the Myster Men, The Deep and Vatikan3.
I’d heard of some of them, and had even seen a few of them.
So there are plenty of ghosts on this album, and ghosts of hopes. The 1970s and ‘80s’ Dublin’s scene’s glimmer of dreams. Prospects of stardom; the price – a ticket on the B+I ferry. As Chevron said: ‘where the hand of opportunity draws a ticket in the lottery.
And these men, Steve, Pete, Bren, Johnny and Tony were all ticket-holders in that exciting Dublin music scene were venues were scarce and the gig-goers were often scared. Who knew what would happen as you walked down Pearse St after a Magnet gig. Yet these five men, made us feel like the prizes were getting better in Dublin. They inspired us, these local bands with their creativity and industry.
They were ticket holders but the bus didn’t often stop in Ireland. At least that’s how it felt. And if it did stop it probably wasn’t going to anywhere you wanted to go. The 46a to Liverpool, now that would have been a bus. The 19 to Notting Hill, even better.
And that’s why Dark Shadows and Rust is such a fantastic album. Such a triumph. Dare I say it, such an essential piece of modern Irish art. It takes all of the hopes and aspirations of those Moran-ish, Baggot-y, Ivy Room-y (although that’s an oxymoron), McGonagle-y, college and Magnetic first steps of young bands and welds them together into an unholy celebration of the power of rock.
While Dark Shadows and Rust is a very Dublin album, it also celebrates the dust and grit, the sweat and blood, the tension and release of the blues, from the Delta to Canvey Island. It wears the ghost-shirts of glam of Bolan and Bowie and Roxy and the candyfloss pop of Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison.
In the key word from the opening track, it’s a Carnival.
Snake Oil Carnival sets the tone for the album in grand style. After an introduction featuring a cacophony of traffic, cymbals and radio drone (a riot in Chatham St music academy perhaps), Steve Rapid and Tony St Ledger combine to sizzling effect in a Doors meets Queens of the Stone Age sixties stomper. It’s almost overflowing with taut guitar whose sinewy histrionics pulse in this rock and rollercoaster.
And then without warning, with the sharpest of shocks, the Carny is over. It’s breath-taking.
Then Pete Holidai grabs the mic for Animal Gang Blues. And to my ears, he’s never sung better, more convincingly, more intensely than on Dark Shadows and Rust. It’s a career-high. The song itself is a prequel to Ghostown. It’s a bloody B-Movie of a song, a scare-a-thon, washed in acid guitars where Holidai is the grinderman, voicing the moral panics that stalked deprived Dublin. Scorning the hopeless souls with finger wagging and wondering where it all went wrong. The characters of the first two Radiator’s albums are here in spirit, although it documents pre-1970s Dublin.
That’s one of the best things about the album, like rap did in the 1980s and early ‘90s when it celebrated the tenements New York City, Trouble Pilgrims take that razor-sharp cinema lens to their own surroundings. Interestingly though, the Pilgrims invoke the past but never wallow in it.
Another dramatic change, and the Tony St Ledger, Instant Polaroid, celebrates another Dublin character, snapping pics on O’Connell street. Capturing moments of bliss, delirious smiles, and the beauty of youth and developing them in what must have been a lonely dark room. It’s an intensely evocative song and is delivered with the panache of early Bauhaus, the sparkle of Spizz Energi and the invention of the great post-punk bands. And that’s why Dark Shadows and Rust is such a triumph, it captures the moment of punk was a kaleidoscope of images and sounds, of personalities and dreams. There was a sense of power and glory for the people who felt powerless and inglorious.
Death Ballad and Queen of Heartache are a pair of Moore street meets New York-flavoured gems. The first contains a candy floss melody combined with barbed wire guitars, if Debbie Harry fronted the Outcasts this would be the song to record. Queen of Heartache is the Ramones twisting with the Royal Showband. Style icons hucklebucking trends, throwing shapes at the mineral bar in some maple-sprung dancefloor of dreams. It’s the song the Golden Horde shudda wrote.
I am only pointing out the points of comparison that I imagine because: a. it’s fun, and b. the album refuses to be typecast or to fit into any neat compartment, and that makes it thrilling.
What other song, apart from Reach Out here could feel like the Replacements, the Stranglers and the Everly Brothers jamming good and ranting about a ‘madman in the White House’? It is the perfect companion to the media-obsession of the early Radiators’ songs on TV Tube Heart.
Long Way to the Sun is a glam-stomper, evoking the spirit of the best moments of Eddie and the Hot Rods and the New York Dolls. At the same time, like the rest of the album, it has this undercurrent of the madcap mischief and style of the Deviants and the Pink Fairies.
Dearly Beloved proves that the Pilgrims can do what the best rock bands can do……make ballads count, and this one is a heart-string puller of the highest level.
And following The Velvet Tongue and Sex in a Cheap Hotel, the album storms to a close with The Great Divide with Theatre of Hate/Ennio Morricone epic guitarscapes.
Like all great albums, Dark Shadows and Rust is greater than the sum of its parts. The razor cuts at the end of each track add to the glorious disjointedness. After all, at the carnival you want to try everything. Variety is the spice of fairground life.
The effect is like putting the contents, and the context, of the sensational Vox fanzine into a blender and mixing it with the spirit of rock and roll as well as every Dubliner’s dreams and desire, damnation, danger and determination. It’s got the invention of the Virgin Prunes and Stano, the nonsense/transcendence of the Golden Horde, the pop genius of the Stars of Heaven and Something Happens!, the punky venom of Paranoid Visions and Bitzy’s Lee Harveys, the mad blues of the Gravediggers and some of the best things about every Dublin band whose only output was a cassette tape.
It’s not just one of the greatest albums of Irish rock, it’s a milestone.
Album of the year…by a mile, a dirty, exciting city mile.
Michael Mary Murphy