At major record labels you can find a curious breed. They are called A&R people. Their job is to find new acts, sign, then, develop them, and keep them constantly motivated and inspired to make great music. Even better for the label – to make music that sells.
A&R people get paid to find acts. Dubliner Eugene Connolly did that job for free. Why? Because he loved, and still loves, music. He had an uncanny knack for finding new acts, encouraging them, going to their early gigs, telling his friends about them, in fact telling people who weren’t even his friends, about them.
He celebrated new acts, he was on a mission to have them heard. He also knew what artists had made a lasting difference, whose legacy deserved to be celebrated. Now he is a vital force in celebrating the twin stars of rock music of the 1970-1990s and beyond: David Bowie and Joe Strummer.
No-one tells his story better than he does, so back to Eugene.
Even as a youngster, you really wanted people to appreciate the music you loved.
Eugene: I remember bringing my Mother into the sitting room one time to specifically hear Bowie doing that amazing vocal on Young Americans, I thought we might find some common ground. Something she might appreciate with cross-generational appeal.
What was the music scene like in Dublin when you were growing up?
Well, as I alluded to earlier, live music gigs were more The Meeting Place with Donal Lunny, Declan Sinnott and Christy Moore. An older brother of my friend Richie, Jimmy Hickey was a roadie/soundman for them and later went on to work for The Waterboys (he’s the tall one with the shades on the cover of Fisherman’s Blues), so we had a slight insight into that world from him. There were bands like Frazzle who I saw downstairs at Toners and a few others. I never went to The Stadium for Rory or Lizzy or Horslips, just before my time, but it wasn’t my thing really. I liked Bowie and T. Rex, Slade, & Sweet.
I was just a year or so too young for those early Moran’s Hotel gigs with The Rats and The Radiators, but as soon as I could I was off and at every gig I could get to. The Vipers, Revolver, The Atrix (John Borrowman was a neighbour, although he’d been living in Berlin for some years). DC Nein (classmate’s big brother played bass), The Letters, The Strougers, The New Versions, the aforementioned Blades and of course I should mention Eugene!
Eugene: One of the best of Ireland’s synth-pop bands
A lot of these bands were neighbours and in the case of Eugene, childhood friends. One of the very first punk bands I ever saw was again, though a friend who was the guitarist, Eoin McElroy. They were magnificently titled White Lice and I used to go to sit in on rehearsals with them. I arrange for them to play one of their first gigs ever at my school hall. They converted a lot of people to this new music that afternoon! Eoin subsequently managed a Dublin band Godot.
Were you ever in a band or wanted to be?
I suppose I always wanted to be in a band but for some reason I never got around to learning an instrument and my singing voice is questionable at best. I hear the music perfectly in my head, am capable of sussing subtle nuance and I reckon I can hum entire solo breaks note-perfect no matter how intricate, so I guess I’ve got de music in me! But at that formative time, I was very busy with playing sports and all my energies and time went into that. I used to see pals like Dave McGinley and others coming out of their guitar classes after school while I was coming in from a mucky field with cuts and bruises from a training session and wonder what I was doing! But I don’t regret it at all. I’m very content to work at the other end of the music thing. On the rare occasion that I end up on a stage or to the forefront of a drunken music session, I mostly feel self-conscious and at odds, so I wouldn’t be a natural performer at all. Although having said that I’m comfortable regaling people with stories and acting the maggot in company.
Eugene the Punk Promoter with Jock McDonald (the Bollock Brothers)
I have been doing a lot of music stuff recently with multiple projects on the go. I was at a function a few weeks ago and had a conversation with a new acquaintance. We got talking and I was telling about my musical interests. He listened intently to every word and then must have asked me about five times ‘So, do you play yourself?’ He couldn’t get his head around the idea that someone could be so involved in music but not be a musician! I guess that’s old school thinking. For me, people like The Beep and the late lamented Frank Murray were inspiring as vibe merchants and promoters.
You have gone to see more Dublin and Irish bands than most people… any of those bands that stick out for you? That should be remembered?
Besides the obvious bands that had success to some degree or other such as U2 and The Rats, The Atrix, The Vipers & DC Nein, Chant Chant Chant!, Side FX, The Strougers, Perridots, The New Versions and even Some Kind of Wonderful were brilliant with their soulfunk . Zebra took care of the live reggae quotient, when we weren’t exposed to Toots & The Maytals, Black Uhuru, Jimmy Cliff and Bob and The Wailers on that front.
I would like to give an honourable mention to personal favourites like The Low (who subsequently went on to become The Real Wild West). They were absolutely stunning, years ahead of their time. Into Paradise were great favourites too, at their best they had similar qualities to Joy Division for me. The Threat were genuinely unsettling, never to be forgotten as were the Virgin Prunes of course. The Stars of Heaven were always good as were all the Nordie bands who ventured down. The Radiators were obviously huge favourites from the get-go but because they had gone to London quite early I only got to see them a few times, most notably at the ‘swimming pool’ in The Crofton Airport Hotel in Whitehall, which was just incredible, finally getting to experience those tracks played live from TV Tube Heart, every song sung word for word. I can’t remember if Ghostown was out by then but just to say that record completely blew my mind!
I also loved the Cork bands with honourable mentions to the three Finbarr Donnelly bands, 5 Go Down to the Sea, Nun Attax & Beethoven was a Dog. Also Mean Features, Microdisney, Cyprus Mine! and personal favourites Stump!
Eugene with Mick Lynch, the legendary frontman with Stump
I squatted in south London, Clapham, Stockwell and Brixton for many years and lived amongst loads of punky Corkonians, none more enigmatic than the legendary Mick Lynch. He was one of the funniest and most mesmerising front-men ever and parties in his squat were legendary. He’d turned his gaff into a cave by way of some creative wall plastering/stippling. So I was at their very first gig playing a squat in Kennington/Elephant & Castle to 50 friends. There were many, many more thereafter. I remember years later having a heated discussion on the merits of Stump! with Hot Press journo George Byrne. He found their weird, choppy/stopstart/punky/surrealist/literate noodlings off-putting and pretentious, whereas I knew better.
But he wasn’t having it at all, so it almost came to blows on the night. I guess George just loved white bread jangly white boy Big Star music. So did I, but not for every meal…
It just occurred to me that maybe it’s the exclamation mark with those bands that attracts me, like current associates, Clashjamwallop!
You went from being a fan to actually helping bands in significant ways…how did that happen?
Well, from the outset I had met Christy Dignam (through a double-date with mutual hairdresser girlfriends) and became best pals immediately. He had a band Electron with Joe Jewell and a few others. It was a kinda Bowie/Lizzy affair so I suppose my enthusiasm for the new punk rock thing rubbed off.
Lions in the Living Room: pre-Aslan Joe, Christy and Mick
I encouraged a move away from covers and so Meelah XVIII was formed, which included a new drummer John Timmins and bass player Mick McKenna (recently immigrated from Baseldon, Essex) who were pals of mine. The name was selected from several entrants in my boxroom at home stuffed into a hat full of scribble band names. Our Drummer,Timo recently told me that he couldn’t believe that his scribbled slip with ‘The Tombs’ name on it didn’t get picked out, as he had put four similar slips into the cap.
The power and purity/perfect pitch of Christy’s voice was mind blowing from the first time I heard him sing Rebel Rebel and Waiting for my(the)Man in his sitting room. So, pretty soon we were up and running with an original set with gigs at The Magnet and The Ivy Rooms. Their first proper gig was actually at my school hall. Christy reminded me recently too that their first actual gig was in my back garden!
I remember one incident at The Ivy Rooms, downstairs basement, where Meelah XVIII were supporting The Double Agents. We had a dedicated following of family and friends from day one and we packed the place out. At the end of the gig we were presented with a few quid by the headliners (Hi Pat!). There followed some choice words, so even though it was very early days, there was a steely determination there…
Can you tell us a bit about your career with bands?
Meelah XVIII & Aslan
Well, after a few years with Meelah XVIII, myself and Christy fell out, for what seemed like the most mundane of reasons, but I suspect that masked greater unspoken tensions. Maybe I took my eye off the ball, or maybe he might have thought I wasn’t professional enough, I was a couple of years younger than him and Joe. I was at College at this stage and they formed Aslan out of the ashes of Meelah XVII but I was never involved except to support as a punter. So, three years in The College of Marketing & Design and upon graduation in Sept ’84, I emigrated to London in Jan ’85.
I kinda chased the Punk thing over to London as soon as I graduated. Of course, it was well dead by then, supplanted by other movements such as the New Romantics and so on. However, I was lucky enough to be there at early gigs by The Waterboys (I couldn’t BELIEVE what I had just witnessed!) Jesus and Mary Chain (snowbound winter night, doors get kicked in, band play with their backs to the audience to a wall of feedback for 20 mins. Riot. One of the best gig ever) and most memorably and frequently, The Pogues (of whom I have many tales, too many to tell here). Along with The Pogues, there was a brilliant cowpunk scene at that time with The Muswell Hillbillies, The Men they Couldn’t Hang, The Blubbery Hellbellies and even Ron Kavanagh. Fantastic punky roots music with attitude.
I always kept an eye on the progress of Aslan and nobody was prouder than me when I saw the entire window of Virgin Records in Oxford Street covered with the Feel No Shame album. They came over to London in the triumph of a Number 1 album in Ireland and played the Rock Garden in Covent Garden. I brought Christy back with me to our squat after the gig, but only found out afterwards that the Aslan management were going ballistic in search of him. Oh, the innocence of it all at the time!
Spot the future US chart-topper? Eugene Connolly did.
My first real job was in a small design company where I worked with a fella originally from Bath called Mike Edwards, just the two of us in the workshop, day-in day-out for a few years. As luck would have it, he was a musician, guitarist/singer and had a band called Camouflage with two pals Al Doughty on bass from Leeds, and old band member, drummer Simon (Gen) Matthews from home.
Mike was a big U2 fan so we became great pals. Together with the two other lads, they all lived together in a flat so I spent many nights there eating, drinking and listening and talking music. I did a few photo shoots for them too which have become kinda legendary amongst fans of their subsequent band, Jesus Jones.
Following little real success, Mike recruited two new band members Jerry de Borg and Iain Baker and came up with the new band name. He was to be Jesus H. Jones and dictated to all that he would have sole musical control and recorded their entire debut ‘Liquidizer’ in his bedroom with the use of a BBC sound effects record as samples! I remember going into one of their first gigs at The Bull & Gate pub, which was a venue directly attached to the famous Town & Country Club venue.
As I was standing outside, I noticed Mick Jones ex of The Clash, getting out of a car and heading towards the T&C. I went over and told him he was going to the wrong gig! (seeing as we were old friends from The Top Hat gig years earlier). I often wonder did he look Jesus Jones up and get turned onto that sampling thing? Certainly his subsequent outfit Big Audio Dynamite were full of samples!
Jesus Jones quickly signed to Food Records and had great international success, even a No.1 in America with ‘Right Here, Right now’. Despite being huge in places like Japan, the toil of pop stardom got too much and they split up after a number of years but in the last while have reformed and are playing to packed houses once again with a new album out shortly. We have continued our friendship and association over all those years and I hope to have them over to Ireland in 2018 for a tour.
Speaking of the BBC, I worked there for 5 years in the newsroom of the World Service. I was lucky enough to ‘win’ a green card for America in 1989, so headed over there in 1990.
After a few years in America I returned home and was almost immediately asked to manage the old Aslan band (without Christy but with another old friend, ex Eugene band, Dave McGinley) who were then known as The Precious Stones. They were already signed to Solid Records and put out a number of singles. These were two very intense years of my life as I had a new graphics business on the go and everything seemed to be spinning at 100 miles per hour. Christy’s ‘Dignam & Goff’ performed at the media launch of my business which was held at Boss Croker’s on Eden Quay, which I now occasionally frequent, as The Voodoo Lounge!
Towards the end of my tenure with The ‘Stones, I convinced Joe Jewell to accompany me to The Baggot Inn to see Christy gigging, which I had been frequently doing myself. They had been seriously estranged after Christy got the boot out of the band some years earlier for reasons which have been well documented. Despite Joe’s reluctance, we met and chatted to Christy and it wasn’t long after that they were coincidentally asked (as Aslan!!) to do a free annual charity gig at the old Janelle Shopping Centre Carpark in Finglas South. The ice had melted by then and they decided (despite nerves on both sides) to take up the offer, wrote ‘Crazy World’ during rehearsals and the rest is history!
Irish Indie Darlings. Pelvis in the 1990s
Incidentally, I was accompanied by Ed Reynolds and Jonny Rowen from a band called ‘R’ at the time who went on to become Pelvis, signed to Setanta Records and released a brilliant album ‘Who are you today’? They peaked with a UK tour with The Divine Comedy and an appearance on ‘Later with Jools Holland’. Pelvis have recently reformed and played a few gigs with me and will be doing so more frequently in 2018! So there is a pattern forming here, ha!
Some recent musical involvements are with the wonderful Clashjamwallop! They only play about 6-8 times per year, doing so out of sheer love for the music of both bands and I can honestly say that they are one of the most wonderful experiences that I have ever had in my time in music. They play an annual Joe Strummer anniversary gig with Trouble Pilgrims (ex-Radiators plus) and The Dubtones on Dec 22nd at the Grand Social, my Dublin venue of choice.
The songs from two inspiring bands, played by inspired musicians = one great evening!
I am currently part of the Dublin Bowie Festival which happens from 4th-10th January, with my own ensemble of musical pals ‘Bowie Raw’ closing the festival on the ‘Vigil’ night as they did last year to acclaimed success. We will have Christy Dignam involved as per last time too amongst many other vocalists in front of a 10 piece house band. Christy and I have rekindled our friendship and working relationship over the past few years, something I am inordinately proud of and one that gives me so much pleasure. We have conspired in achieving some really great moments together and are just awaiting the publication of his autobiography shortly amongst other projects.
The Bowie Raw Team
The Bollock Brothers
Another of my associations has been with the wonderful Bollock Brothers. They are an original band mainly based in Germany, that sprung from the ashes of The 4” be 2”s (with Jimmy Lydon & Youth) and through the leadership of The Legendary Jock McDonald. I met Jock some 30 years ago and we have been pals since. He’s from Donegal although London based, via Glasgow and London! The Bollocks have played here a good few times over the last few years. Myself and Jock plan and scheme new situationist follies regularly together and have some really exciting new plans for 2018, Jock’s autobiography amongst them.
The Bollock Brothers: still going strong.
I am also producing, along with Paul Byrne of In Tua Nua, the 2018 annual Pieta House Rock & Roll Fundraiser at the Olympia on Friday 6th April. I’m looking forward to assembling a great night of acts which will no doubt be as successful as last year’s gig. It’s a suicide awareness/prevention charity and does essential work with some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
There are other very exciting plans for late summer but I am not at liberty to talk about them at this time!
Michael Mary Murphy