When I spoke to a healthy Philip Chevron in the lobby of Brooks Hotel in April 2012, I asked him about Paul Cleary and The Blades. He said with much enthusiasm:
I very much admired Paul Cleary. He appears to have retired from Irish music, which is a huge loss, but I don’t blame him. I know how difficult it is. I have utmost admiration for him and the band.
I don’t think anyone could have imagined that just over 18 months later, we would have tragically lost Philip to cancer at the age of 56 and that Paul would be coming out of perceived retirement to play with The Blades on stage for the first time in 27 years.
Both events are somewhat linked.
Paul explained to Pat James on Radio Nova last Sunday night (8th December) that Philip had invited him to play at his testimonial in the Olympia in August 2013. Paul sang two songs, a cover of ‘Enemies‘ by The Radiators From Space and his own ‘Downmarket‘. I’m not 100% sure but I believe this would have been the first time he had played a Blades song in public since March 2002 and before that January 1986.
Eamon Carr summed it up so well during the week when he said:
…the audience agreed on two things. One: the spirit of Philip Chevron would live forever. Two: Paul Cleary had stepped out of some ghost estate of the heart to save Ireland in a time of crisis.
In the same radio interview on Nova, Paul explained that the dignity of Philip and his close family and friends on that special night in the Olympia made a huge impact on him. While he admitted that the two weren’t particularly close friends, he had met Philip at various events down through the years and always liked him. He knew that Phil would have loved to have been able to play himself on the night if he had had the strength. Philip’s emotional testimonial concert, at which the crowd gave Paul such an amazing reaction, was one of the reasons that spurred on Paul to get the The Blades back together.
Besides sharing the same initials (ignoring Philip’s real surname of course), I believe Paul Cleary and Philip Chevron shared quite a bit in common.
Both were proud Dubliners and gifted songwriters who were able to write fantastic love songs as well as tackle serious political issues in their work. Born a couple of years apart, the explosion of punk changed both their lives. Philip formed The Radiators from Space at the dawn of punk in 1976 while the younger Paul had to wait until 1977 to get The Blades together. Both bands received widespread critical acclaim but found little financial success and their first bands suffered from record company woes.
On the other hand, their song writing was very different. While Philip was strongly influenced by the theatre, the literature of James Joyce and cabaret stars like Agnes Bernelle, Paul’s Dublin had a lot more to do with James Plunkett and Sean O’Casey. It was kitchen sink realism with a Dublin twist.
So while only Philip Chevron could write:
We’ll even climb the pillar like you always meant to,
Watch the sun rise over the strand.
Close your eyes and we’ll pretend,
It could somehow be the same again.
I’ll bury you upright so the sun doesn’t blind you.
You won’t have to gaze at the rain and the stars.
Sleep and dream of chapels and bars,
And whiskey in the jar. (Song of the Faithful Departed)
Equally no-one could come close to matching Paul Cleary’s bitter description of a city torn apart by unemployment and monotony:
On a rainy afternoon
On a gambling machine
Same old jukebox, same old tune
It’s hard to break this old routine
Everything’s black and white and grey
Living from day to day to day
It’s a fatal resignation, when there’s nothing left to hope for
In a hopeless situation
I’m not waiting at an airport
I’m not waiting at a station
I’m standing at a bus stop (Downmarket)
In the bar of the Herbert Park hotel on 20th November, I spent a very enjoyable hour talking to Paul Cleary. While he sipped soda water, we spoke about football, his early musical influences, some aspects of The Blade’s career, his political motivations, his song lyrics and his plans for the future.
As is often the case with these kind of things, I believe our conversation was only really beginning to flow properly just as we had to wrap things up. But Paul is a very busy man these days and he had at least another interview if not two lined up immediately after mine. I was just chuffed that he had managed to take time to speak to me. Come Here To Me! is not a national newspaper or a music magazine. We’re just a small Dublin-focused social history blog with a loyal community of readers. I’ll always thank him for that chat and to his long-time fixer and close friend Elvera Butler of Reekus Records for sorting everything out.
In as much as possible, I wanted our chat to be a informal conversation than a rigid interview. Here it is…
I thought I could break the ice by talking about football. I heard you were quite a decent player in your younger days?
“Yeah, I played seriously until I was about 14 or 15. I was good enough to play for Dublin schoolboys. A scout from Man United came down to my parents and they were going to send me over for a trial but a few weeks before I was supposed to go over, I pulled a ligament in my ankle.”
And you were a Shamrock Rovers fan from day one?
“Yep, my Dad used to bring me to Milltown as a kid. Frank O’Neill up front. Mick Leech on the wing. We’d walk up from Ringsend most times. That was quite the walk! Though sometimes we’d get the ‘football’ double decker bus from town. We’d go home after the match and listen to Brendan O’Reilly reading out the sports results. That was the only way we’d find out about the other games that night. Then from around the age of 14 or so, I started going with a gang of mates to the matches.”
Was there much bootboy trouble on the terraces at this point?
“Oh there was. An awful lot. Rovers fans did have a bit of a reputation then. We’re talking late 1960s, early 1970s. My first floodlight game was Rovers-Bayern Munich in Dalymount. 1-1 I think. 1966 if I can remember correctly. I would have been about 7 or 8.”
Did music become your next passion after football or was there a bit of an overlap?
“There was an overlap. My Dad was really into music. He had a very eclectic taste. He was into classical, jazz and pop. One day he went out to get a [Felix] Mendelssohn album but came back with Bad Company’s ‘Running With The Back’ . He also had all the Beatles albums plus Buddy Holly, Bill Haley and other Rock ‘n’ Roll stuff too.”
Did you start buying your own records then at around that time?
“Yeah, from the early 1970s onwards. Cat Stevens, Elton John, Paul Simon, James Taylor. Maybe a bit of Slade and T-Rex. It seems the opposite of punk but this was all pre-punk. Punk blew all that out of the window. But for me then, it was that kind of stuff. The likes of James Taylor taught me how to sing because I used to sing along with those kind of albums.”
Which record shops were you visiting in town?
“A place on Tara Street. I think it was called The Banba. Albums were 2.40 and singles were 50p!”
Did you have your own record player or did the family share one?
“Yep, we all shared a big stereogram. A big wooden thing. The first record we put on it was Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around The Clock’. Maybe I’m looking through rose-tinted glasses but it really was a magical object. It was how I was introduced to music. I remember putting on headphones and listening to albums for hours and hours on end. It was my world.”
Would you have been swapping albums and singles with your mates? Were they into music as much as you were?
“No, they weren’t really. It was my brother really. He would recommend bands to me. At around 15 or 16, he started showing me a few chords on guitar.”
Can you remember how you heard of the whole Punk explosion?
“It would have been through reading about it in NME I suppose. Reviews of the Sex Pistols and the like. I remember one reviewer said something along the lines of – “This is not Rock n Roll, it’s more important than that”. It just sounded great to me and I loved the name The Sex Pistols. Rock music had become very stagnant and stale by that stage. All that Prog-Rock rubbish. I always had a passion for music but I saw this as my opportunity to actually do something about it. I was in a choir as a kid so I knew I could sing reasonably well. So could my brother so we used to bounce off harmonies off each other. It was thanks to him. I may have taken up music myself but not as quickly or with as much enthusiasm if it wasn’t for him. I started then to write the odd song and he’d tell me it was very good, sometimes when it really wasn’t but that encouragement from your older brother really helped.”
Were you going to many gigs at this point?
“Yeah well then me and my brother started going out to see bands. We were playing a little bit ourselves so we knew we had to go and see what was out there. We had to see the Irish equivalent of what we’d been reading about in NME and Sounds. We saw a few bands, and I won’t name them because that would be unfair, but they weren’t that good.
But then we saw The Vipers one Saturday afternoon in McGonagles on South Anne Street. The first thing that struck me was that there was a queue outside the door. Now, I’m not nationalistic at all but I remember thinking “this is a queue of local people to see a local band and this can only be a good thing”. They were very good. They wrote pop songs with energy and they didn’t look like middle-class tossers in it for only a laugh. They looked like genuine people into their music. I remember turning to my brother Lar and saying ‘we can do this too’. At the time, The Vipers were the benchmark for us.”
Were bands like The Boomtown Rats and The Radiators from Space in your orbit?
“Not really, they’d moved to London about the time I started going to gigs. The other lads in the band went to see the Rats in Morans Hotel at one of their last gigs before they left but I didn’t make it. They said they were a good Rhythm and Blues band.”
Dr. Feelgood esque?
“Yep, exactly. I really liked Dr. Feelgood. In a way, they helped pave the way for the whole punk thing.”
One of your first big gigs was supporting them and The Specials in the Olympic Ballroom in November 1979?
“It would have been, yep. Wilko Johnson wasn’t playing with them at that stage. I think The Specials were booked for that gig well in advance, before they had really broke. So when the gig came around, they were the bigger band. So in a way Dr. Feelgood were relegated to second. The Specials blew me away that night. I learnt a lot from them at that gig. I remember watching The Specials and taking note of how they worked the crowd.”
How did you guys end up on that bill?
“I really can’t remember. It could have been through [gig promoter] Pat Egan. He probably knew our manager Mark [Venner]. They used to try to put on local, young bands as warm up. I think they probably still do. We were getting some good reviews at the time. We were a bit nervous playing that gig but I really enjoyed it.”
How did the legendary Magnet gigs come about?
“We started playing The Magnet on Tuesday nights. Only about 6 or 7 people turned up to the first few gigs. We probably knew four of them. We then put an ad in Hot Press saying “Punk Rock at The Magnet”. It was mainly known as a cabaret venue at the time. Maybe Boppin’ Billy was doing the rockabilly nights at that stage but it definitely wasn’t a place to see punk bands. It wasn’t really on the circuit as such before we started the residency there. It was only up the road from us anyway so people starting associating The Blades with The Magnet. It was a real small sweaty place and I don’t think we ever played a bad gig there. Also, I always enjoyed making up compilation tapes to play them during the interval between the support band and us. It used to be Jimmy Cliff and a lot of reggae.”
In terms of your diehard mod and scooter boys support, did you ever feel that that fanbase could hold you back in terms of acquiring a wider success?
“I didn’t mind it at all. Sometimes we may even have cultivated it a bit! I always liked the Mod gear myself. I’m not stylish enough to be one myself but I always loved Northern Soul and Motown. I never shoehorned The Blades into a specific Mod category but I’m happy enough to be considered part of the wider Mod family. But you’re right in one way, there was always that danger of being categorised as simply as a ‘mod band’. The Jam are an example of a band who weren’t straight-jacketed by it unlike the likes of The Lambrettas, Secret Affair etc. who weren’t that amazing anyway.”
It always struck me as odd that besides The Blades, Ringsend didn’t produce any other bands during that period. So while there were clusters of bands in specific areas like Howth (The Spies, Rocky De Valera & The Gravediggers, The Modulators etc.), Artane/Ballymun/Malahide (U2, Virgin Prunes etc.), and on the Navan Road etc. you would only ever associate Ringsend with The Blades. Any idea why that is?
“That’s a good question. I’m not sure really. I definitely can’t think of any other Ringsend Punk or New Wave bands. At the time there were a couple of cabaret/wedding bands who did covers but that was about it.
The only other angle to that is that I do remember seeing Eamon Carr [drummer, Horslips] around the area. Usually on the number 2 or 3 bus to Sandymount. You’d see him sitting upstairs at the front. A very cool looking guy. I thought it was great seeing someone like that on a bus. I remember thinking that that’s the kind of person I want to be. In a band but on a bus too” I always liked the idea of being in a band. Sometimes more than the reality of being in a band itself. I get bored in the studio. I get nervous playing live gigs but hopefully I utilise that nervous energy. An anxious sort of nervousness. Rehearsals are mind numbingly boring and hard work. Photo sessions are probably the worst of all. Standing there for hours on end. The only thing I really liked was when I wrote a song, brought it to rehearsal and everything would go well.”
Jumping ahead to politics, how did you first become politically aware?
“It was just my background really. Seeing how life was unfair in terms of access to opportunities. How society and how politics was run in general. I would have started having political arguments when I was 15 or 16. All the bullshit from big business and the Fine Gaels and Fianna Fails of the country. Even the PDs saying that they would be good for the general society when they were only really interested in helping their own kind of people – people they went to Clongowes with or whatever.”
Have your politics shifted over time?
“I probably wouldn’t be as edgy or spiky as I was then but I still hold most of those political ideals. I’d still be voting Hard Left.”
I’m really fascinated with 1980s agit-prop soul bands. I’ve come up with the descripion of ‘up-tempo brass-driven left-leaning Motown-influenced soul’. Bands like Dexy’s Midnight Runners (first album), The Jam’s last album and then the Style Council, The Redskins, The Faith Brothers and Fire Next Time. Did you feel at the time that The Blades were part of this ‘community’ or is it only in hindsight that The Blades seem to fit in well with this strand of mainly British bands?
“I don’t really know. I tend to leave that up to people themselves. It’s so difficult for me to be objective when asked questions about The Blades and what genre or groups they belong to. If people wanted to put us into the same group with Billy Bragg, the Style Council etc. – I certainly wouldn’t be offended, put it that way. They would have been mostly left-leaning Labour Party/Red Wedge supporters.”
What about The Redskins?
“Certainly. They’d be more Socialist Workers Party, which is fine again by me. I wouldn’t have any problem being put into the same category as those kind of groups.”
It seems that your more political songs are more relevant today than they have been since at any time since the early 1980s, has the irony been lost on you?
“No, it hasn’t at all. It’s sad in many ways. We haven’t really moved on that much, even if some people thought we had. During the Celtic Tiger years, there was some who promoted the notion that “we’re all middle class now”. There was a lot of “pull the ladder up, we’ve made it here”. It was just an illusion though. It seems today that things are more anti-collective bargaining, anti – trade unionism etc. It’s still a very right wing country. That’s the political culture we have here. Some of it has to do with the Catholic Church. Fianna Fail and Fine Gael and other parties have been pulling the wool over our eyes for so long. We haven’t built up that culture of left-wing politics yet. We have a culture of anti-Imperialism but that hasn’t really translated into anything else.”
Did Republican politics ever interest you?
“Not narrow-minded nationalism. I know Sinn Fein talk a lot about socialist issues but to me they’re still a nationalist party. For me, nationalism and socialism don’t mix. Nationalism is all based on the bit of land you were born on. I don’t believe somebody is any better if they were born in Dublin or in Manchester.”
Looking at some of your lyrics, I thought similar themes running through Muscle Men (bouncers) and ‘Those Were The Days’ (teachers) was violence at the hands of authority figures.
“Well for Muscle Men, I think I wrote it after being refused to a couple of places. To be fair, nightclub bouncers are easy targets to write about! ‘Those Were The Days’ was about Catholic schooling. The guilt and Catholicism and the choices that creep in on you.”
Was it based on personal experiences of getting whacked by school teachers or was it more of a general criticism?
“More general. I got off reasonably lightly. I got a few whacks but as I’ve said before to people the whacks are often not as bad as the psychological damage that can go with it.”
In ‘Talk About Listening‘, you describe the warehouse worker toiling away Monday to Friday for one night on the town on the weekend. It would seem that very few bands in Dublin in the early 1980s were writing about similar genuine day-to-day issues facing working class and young people?
“The song is a bit arty in a way in its construct. There’s very few lines, it’s very minimal. Almost Beckettian without sounding pretentious. It indicates someone’s state of mind in a job like that. As the song is based in a warehouse, it’s bleak so there’s not six or seven verses. It’s not the blue collar stuff of Bruce Springsteen. It’s not all doom and gloom but working class life can be very bleak. It lacks hope. It lacks a future. They’re the real things. There was a horrible politician in the 1980s who said that they could live on X amount a week out in Ballymun. Of course she could. She could do it for 6 months but the fact is that once you know that you can step out of that environment, it’s easy to do. The whole thing about being poor or not having a job is the feeling that it’s always going to be like that. It’s not that you can only afford a small pan loaf of bread, it’s the fact that you only afford a small pan loaf of bread every day for the rest of your life.”
I thought the theme of disenchantment with the political class can be seen again with ‘Got Soul‘:
Nothing’s being said just a lot of noise
Trying to fool working girls and boys
Now there’s a way of making career
Ruling by fear
We’re on our knees bowing to a flag
They’re whipping it up in the daily rag
“Yeah, there was also a dig at nationalism in there. It’s what the ruling class do. It’s what Thatcher did during the Falklands. I wrote the song during that war in 1982 and it probably was in the back of my mind when writing those lyrics. The ruling class always say: “forget about your grievances against us, let’s all unite as a people under this one flag”. That’s why I would never trust nationalism as an ideology to get you anywhere.”
For me, it would seem that all of your politics came together in ‘Dublin City Town‘. As I wrote before on the blog, the song deals with wealth inequality, the gombeen political class, the developers’ destruction of the city’s architecture, youth unemployment, mass emigration and Irish society’s relationship with alcohol all in under 4 and a half minutes.
“Ha, well thanks! It was very ambitious alright.”
But it also had good tune!
“Look, it’s little or no use without the good tune. It’s great to think that I wrote these things with a hope that some people might appreciate it later on. You’ve made feel good about myself now.” *laughs*
It’s also quite a uplifting song. There’s hope in the message as well.
“Yeah, it’s a defiant song if you like.”
Jumping ahead to your post-Blades work with the Cajun Kings, did you have always have an ambition to play that kind of music?
“Not at all. To me, I wasn’t even involved. It was like a holiday but I got paid. I needed the money. I knew the lads in the band as well. It was just a breeze. For the Wilf Brothers before the Cajun Kings, I would sing about 3 or 4 songs and have a few pints on stage. I could never go to Brazil with the money but we got a few bob. I enjoyed the freedom of it.”
Do you listen to much new music?
“No, I don’t really. I know I should though. Three young children means I don’t have a lot of spare time! I’m probably not as enthusiastic as I used to be in going out and searching for new music but if it comes to me, I’ll embrace it.”
Have you embraced the internet and sites like YouTube and Facebook?
“Facebook, no. I don’t have an account on that or on Twitter. YouTube is great though. If I think of an old song, I can get it straight away.”
Was there any big reason why you decided to finally get the band together after all these years?
“Not really. It was a number of small little things. One thing was the return of emigration. A lot of people obviously come home for Christmas so I thought it would be nice to do something, for the want of a better word, for the diaspora coming home.”
Something like Paul Cleary’s Gathering? *laughs*
“Ha, yeah that’s right. Another angle was that I love the Olympia Theatre itself and the Phil Chevron gig went so well there. He was so great that night as were his people. It was so dignified. I turned up and played a couple of song’s at Phil’s request. He obviously would have loved to play himself and that kinda got me thinking about my own stuff. I said to myself “Why be so precious about it?”
What’s the future for the band going into the New Year, can we expect any new material?
“There’s always a chance. Those bands who played in the 1970s or 1980s and then reform for a few gigs sometimes delude themselves into thinking they can start again and be the same people they once were. It’s just not like that. If I had new material, I’d hope it would be reasonably good. But you have to think, who would give us money to record it? Well, you wouldn’t need as much as you did back then. Would anyone actually buy it? Well, there’d be downloads etc. It’s a different game now. I wouldn’t rule anything out. I’ve been caught out before saying “The Blades will never play again”. I’m concentrating on these two gigs. I want people to be happy walking out so if I decide to do a gig next year or something at least people can go ‘well, at least we weren’t shortchanged then’.”
Thanks for speaking to me Paul.
“No problems Sam.”