Karl Tsigdinos doesn’t sugar-coat the truth, nor does he hide his passion for the music he loves. Like Nick Kent, he isn’t afraid to be unfashionable; he doesn’t follow trends…he follows his own star and is an inspiring truth-teller.
Unlike Nick Kent, Karl was penning his love letters to the musicians he admired from Dublin, not London. Yet he found much to love in Ireland’s small yet feverishly dynamic punk/post-punk music scene. It was an inspired move by Niall Stokes to snap up Karl close to the start of Hot Press’ launch, and Karl served music lovers admirably with his penetrating interviews and insightful live reviews.
Now, he broadcasts with the same undiminished enthusiasm on Shakin’ Street on Dublin City FM on the prime 7 pm Saturday night slot. It’s a programme not to be missed.
As if that wasn’t enough, Karl is a skilled graphic designer, and is responsible for the beloved Freebird logo as well as design work for the Blades and even MTUSA. Here’s part one of his incredible story.
Was there music in your house when you were growing up?
Nobody played an instrument in our house, but, like many couples in that era, my parents had a small record collection – maybe 10 or 12 albums. It was an eclectic selection. My dad was big on marching band music, so John Philip Sousa featured prominently. My mum preferred Nat King Cole and Billy Eckstine. The one album they had that I loved above all the others was The Sons of the Pioneers’ “Cool Water” on RCA Victor. It had the stunning version of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” with an orchestra, which remains one of my favourite songs ever.
What was the music scene like when you were growing up?
I grew up in Boston, where I first heard pop music on the radio… I fell in love with both pop music and radio immediately. When the Beatles landed in America, my head exploded!
My family moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the mid-1960s, where I found music in the very air around us. Motown was at its creative and commercial peak, and there were hundreds of other Soul and Blues acts doing the rounds. Throw in the whole Detroit Rock ‘n’ Roll scene, and my little head exploded again!
My junior high school (the equivalent of 1st to 3rd Years here) actually installed a jukebox in the cafeteria, and we were allowed to play it during lunch. Kids dancing in the dining room to a jukebox! Can you picture that happening now?
Around this time, we also had the start of FM radio as a music service, and it was all free-form and non-commercial. (I once heard a jock in our local FM station do this link: “That was side one of the new Rolling Stones album. Here is side two.”)
When did you start going to gigs?
Around 1968 or so… But only ones a young teen could get into.
Any memorable ones?
Oh, yeah! The MC5 doing a free gig in Gallop Park. They scared the crap out of us! Ann Arbor ran many free gigs in parks around the city, and we went to them all.
Then there was a night club called the Fifth Dimension, or the 5D, that ran alcohol-free matinee events that kids could go to and hear bands. I can’t tell you who we saw there, but I know that some of the best bands of the era played the 5D, like the Rationals, the Iguanas, the SRC, the Stooges. I’d like to say I saw them all, but I am sure I didn’t. When I interviewed Suzi Quattro a decade later, I discovered that she had been in the 5D around the time I was too – though if I’d seen her band, the Pleasure Seekers, I would certainly remember them!
The Ann Arbor bands of that era each rented a ramshackle house, lived communally and used it as a rehearsal space. We cycled around town on our Stingray bikes and parked outside the different houses to listen to the bands. I told that story to Wayne Kramer of the MC5 when he came to Drogheda last year, and he was able to tell me which bands lived in which houses as I named the streets. There was a magical moment when we were outside one house listening to a band (the SRC, I think) and Ann Arbor’s then current Soul star, Deon Jackson, drove by in a limousine.
The Ann Arbor Blues Festivals also introduced us to loads of other great sounds and artists. Music was just everywhere, all the time.
What type of music did you love before punk came along?
Well, I started with my parents’ records (and I still love the Sons of the Pioneers and Nat King Cole). I quickly fell in love with the Beatles, the Kinks, the Four Seasons, Petula Clark, the Byrds – as well as Doo Wop, which could still be heard widely on the radio. I must have gone through hundreds of AA batteries falling asleep each night with my transistor radio under my pillow.
Were you friends into it too?
Three of my school friends were also into Beatles in a big way. We used to pretend to be them and mime along to the records, one of us hitting a set of sofa cushions as “drums,” the others playing tennis rackets as “guitars.” One of the lads even had a Beatles wig! There are photos somewhere, but I hope they remain lost in the mists of time. (The only other thing I will say about this period is that I think I played George…)
Did you go to any gigs pre-punk?
The aforementioned gigs in Ann Arbor. Then there many gigs in college back in Boston, like Vinegar Joe with Robert Palmer and Elkie Brooks. That was one of the worst gigs I’ve ever seen. Van Morrison in Harvard Square was a good gig – he was even in decent humour that night. Then Punk exploded in Boston and New York in the mid-seventies, and we went to gigs almost every night, mostly in The Rathskeller Bar (The Rat) in Kenmore Square.
We saw Blondie, Talking Heads, Mink DeVille, Television, Tuff Darts, the Cars, DMZ, the Laughing Dogs, the Shirts, Wayne County, the Real Kids and dozens of other bands before they had record contracts. We were at the Damned’s notorious first American gig – the one where they ate pizza on stage at The Rat. (Needless to say, this did not go down well with an audience used to great Rock ‘n’ Roll, and more than one bottle flew stage-ward.) We saw Iggy Pop with Bowie on keyboards and Blondie supporting, in Harvard Square. Saw the Runaways at the Rat too, though they weren’t that good – more hype than substance. A real killer gig was the Ramones’ first Boston appearance in The Club in Cambridge. This was just around the launch of their first album. They completely blew us away. It was one of those “burning bush” moments. I was already in love with rock ‘n’ roll; after that I became both zealot and proselytiser.
Were you ever in any bands? Or wanted to be?
Yes, inspired by punk, we formed a band in college in early 1976. It was called The European Liquidators, as we thought it made us sound both exotic and dangerous. None of us were from Europe, of course!
We rehearsed madly for several months but, without an actual drummer, didn’t make a lot of progress. We had a mix of original tunes and covers of songs by the Zombies, Tommy Roe and Johnny Rivers.
In the first week of June, 1977, we booked ourselves a recording session in a small studio in Revere Beach, drafted a good friend in to drum, and attempted to cut a single – our answer song to the UK punk bands. It was called, “(Why Don’t You Shoot Me with Your) Sex Pistol.”
We were so inept that we ran out of time before we could complete a B-side, but four single-sided acetates were cut. One of them turned up on eBay a couple of years ago, and sold for $3,300, with a second copy going for $3,100 a short time later. Unfortunately, none of us in the band had those copies, so no money in it for any of us. But it does allow me to gloat to friends who are/were in bands about who has recorded the most valuable record. (As the single was less than a minute-and-a-half long, that works out at about forty bucks per second!)
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?
I arrived in Dublin in June, 1977, just after we recorded our own single. By that Autumn, the city was positively jumping with bands. The energy was fantastic, and certainly the equal of anything in Boston or New York or London at the time (and without the cynicism that often tinged those scenes). The Radiators, the Blades and The Atrix were true standouts, as were The Vipers and Revolver. The New Versions did some good gigs too. Rocky DeValera & the Gravediggers were always shambolic, but incredible fun. It may be unpopular to say it now, but the early U2 gigs were pretty good… Not so much the Project gig, but the Dandelion Market ones and especially the “Jingle Balls” series in McGonagles. Then there were the Navan Road bands – the Fabrics and the Sinners. The Defenders gig was epic! And I was lucky enough to see the Boy Scoutz too. The Rats played a cracker of a gig at the Olympia later on. My overriding memory is lots and lots of fun. (It wasn’t all great though. One of the very few gigs I ever walked out on because it was so bad, was Raw Deal in the Baggot Inn. Raw Deal was a metal power trio, and I’ve never heard three people in the one band playing three different songs at the same time, before or since.)
You went from being a fan to actually championing bands in the media, first with your writing, later as a broadcaster….how did that happen?
I got into radio in college, where I was able to play music I loved, like the Flamin’ Groovies, Dave Edmunds, the English pub rock bands, and old Doo Wop and Rock ‘n’ Roll. I can’t prove it, but I am sure I was amongst the very first to play the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Vibrators on American radio. I also played demos by The Cars, as well as all the contemporary Boston bands. Through the radio, I brought a load of records by Boston and New York bands over here to try and get them reviews in music papers on this side of the Big Pond – NME, Melody Maker, Sounds and, in Dublin, the then brand-new Hot Press. I met the late Bill Graham this way, and he encouraged me to write something about Mink DeVille, as they were coming to Dublin a couple of months later. Hot Press printed my article, so I kept sending articles in, including an epic feature about Dave Edmunds, and they kept printing them. Hot Press owner/editor Niall Stokes offered me a three month job which lasted three years, and it started me on both my journalism and graphic design career paths.
Can you tell us a bit about your media career?
I have been incredibly lucky in being able to work at things I love – writing, graphic design, radio and television – mostly involving topics I love, like music and cars.
After Hot Press, I worked for several different magazines as Art Director, as well as publishing my own titles for twenty years. I have written for publications all over the world, and got to travel extensively for work.
I designed many music-related projects: the Blades and Freebird logos, logos and sleeves for bands like the Rhythm Kings, Van Morrison, the BTs, Pulling Faces, Those Nervous Animals, and more. I did the logo and all the graphics for MT-USA, the very first music video programme in Europe.
Radio-wise, I presented shows on many of the Dublin pirate stations, and later RTE Radio 1 and 2FM. I presented the River of Soul on Today FM for eight years, which is also where I originated Shakin’ Street. The River of Soul now goes out on RTE Gold on Sunday evenings, and Shakin’ Street on Dublin City FM on Saturday evenings, both at 7:00. I also present the afternoon programme on Christmas FM. I love doing all of those shows every bit as much as I ever have – radio is magical! I get to play records I love on the radio, and share them with listeners.
In television, I presented and produced our own car programme, Drive, on RTE, where I managed to sneak music from the likes of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, the Shangri-Las and the Brain Surgeons onto national prime time television.
To be continued……
Michael Mary Murphy
2 thoughts on ““The MC5 scared the crap out of us”. Karl Tsigdinos the Ramones zealot who championed the Pistols and the Clash.”
Uncle Karl. Cool and a messenger scout. I love and admire this man so much. He continues to promote new acts on Shakin Street. An essential listen. Loved that interview. Thanks
Great article thanks.