I find myself in a similar dilemma with trying to pick my favourite Irish album. I know the ‘right’ answer is Astral Weeks by Van Morrison and the coolest album would have to be the legendary Loveless by My Bloody Valentine. A more honest gauge of ranking albums in order of preference is the amount of times I have played them.
A-House’s I am the Greatest and Engine Alley’s A Sonic Holiday would be definite contenders. Rollerskate Skinny’s Horsedrawn Wishes is such an under-rated album and I have great memories of ‘Speed to my Side’ reaching anthemic status in Sir Henrys. So when Noise asked me to do this, they suggested I keep it personal. I can do personal.
A pre-Liberty Bar ritual every Saturday night was for Freakscene’s co-founder, Chicken, and myself to watch Ryantown on Network 2 as I finished my dinner. For younger readers, Ireland had two channels back then, we had no euro and we had a recession – but most of us were unaware of this, it was just normality.
Gerry Ryan was struggling to make it on TV with silly TV shows. He ran a singing-in-the-bath competition; the premise of which was that people would make home videos of themselves, you guessed it, singing in the bath. The standard was hopeless, but if there was one thing I was really good at it was making a fool of myself in public.
I bet my Dad £15 that we could get on the show. Our humiliating video involved myself and Chicken ‘punking’ ourselves up, getting into a neighbour’s bath with 2 dogs a few cans of beer and some ‘finger food’ singing the Willie Nelson classic ‘To all the girls we loved before’ out of key, out of tune and out of time.
RTÉ asked us to remake it without the beer. We didn’t, but RTÉ decided to show it anyway. I won my £15 and we won a holiday to Florida.
Having possibly destroyed my credibility (and Chicken’s too) in that last paragraph, I want the record to show that we drove 11 hours from Orlando, Florida to Athens, Georgia, just to visit the hometown of REM and the B52s! We had no plan, just an understanding that we’d go on the piss. Maybe we’d discover their favourite haunts or something.
All we discovered is that Athens is in the heart of the bible belt and bars don’t open on Sunday, ‘Losing My Religion’ has had an added poignancy ever since! So what the hell has any of this got to do with Irish albums? Well every great trip has its soundtrack and on that trip Chicken had a great compilation tape. One song really stood out, it was ‘Lucy’ by The Divine Comedy.
Once back in Cork I popped into Comet Records (old Plugd) and bought two Divine Comedy albums, Promenade and Liberation, from Jim and George (old Albert and Jim). I absolutely loved both albums and still have difficulty differentiating them from each other to this day, as I bought both at the same time and was listening to them both back-to-back.
This clergyman’s son with his posh accent, his suits, clever songs about literary greats, posh girls, French movies, mythological references and period paisley wallpaper designs decorating his album sleeves all portrayed a world that was quite alien to me. When he was at garden fêtes, I was road bowling against young travellers or mackerel fishing.
So the album I have chosen is Promenade by The Divine Comedy. If you’re looking for comparisons or reference points, then try to imagine a Scott Walker and Michael Nyman collaboration on the soundtrack of a period movie, based on one idyllic day-in the-life of two young lovers. At the very least this probably loosely describes Neil’s ambition and although this is a concept album of sorts, don’t let that turn you off. I loved it for years before I was made aware of this fact.
The day starts with his lady friend having an early morning bath in the opening song as our gentleman speeds on his bicycle to meet her in track two, ‘Going Downhill Fast’. ‘The Booklovers’ is a name-dropping (but fun) roll call of the literary greats which is possibly the pre-lunch nervous conversation before the two sweethearts have their seafood lunch in ‘A Seafood Song’.
The après lunch song is the gorgeous ‘Geronimo’, in which the couple get soaked but finishes with him ‘drying her beautiful hair before an open fire’. ‘Don’t Look Down’ finds the couple on a ferris wheel, only to discover he is afraid of heights, so afraid that it conjures up images of death and this arrogant little chappy has an argument with God (‘who really ought not to exist’).
It is the next song that really seals the deal for me with this album, ‘When The Lights Go Out All Over Europe’ celebrates European Cinema over Hollywood:
‘When the lights go out all over Europe
I forget about old Hollywood,
‘Cos Doris Day could never make me cheer up
Quite the way those French girls always could.’
I guess this album is much like a great French classic movie; a movie in which nothing major happens plot-wise, but is full of subtleties and poignant moments, all delivered in style, a celebration of the simple things that all add up to an almost perfect day.
A spontaneous dip in the sea in ‘Neptune’s Daughter’ almost results in our leading lady accidentally drowning, but she is saved by a strong pair of arms before being whisked off to ‘A Drinking Song’, humorously celebrating the joys and demons of drink. Time flies on days such as these and it is now ‘Ten Seconds To Midnight’ in which the lovers sadly realise their day is coming to a close.
However they don’t indulge in this melancholy for too long as ‘Tonight We Fly’, the closing track, is a celebration of life and love which ends with this philosophical lyric:
‘If heaven doesn’t exist
What will we have missed
This life is the best we’ve ever had?’
Well it is not quite the last word, the ‘hidden track’ features a reading from Horace’s ‘Ode to a Man’ which seems to capture the spirit of the album and is perhaps the album’s message.
‘Happy the man, and happy he alone, he who can call today his own: he who, secure within, can say, ‘Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today’.’
Promenade is peppered with literary references, French cinema references, Greek mythology; as mentioned already musically are influenced by artists such as Michael Nyman and Scott Walker. It really is a great Irish album, possibly even my favourite.
John O’Leary has had a few aliases in his time, but there’s really no hiding behind the most successful indie/alternative nightclub Ireland has seen over the last two decades – Freakscene.