TALES OF THE TELLURIANS

A selection from the columns of 2000

Where have all the pubsingers gone?
Has anybody noticed that most of the old style pub singers are gone? These characters, mainly men although there were always a few good women one could count on, usually came into their own during the Light Opera Festival.

The sing- song would start, they would be asked to oblige but, with looks of horror on their faces and much pointing to their sore throats, they would decline. 'Go-on, go-on, sure you'll manage a verse or two', we would say, but still no joy and they would sit there impassive or with a sad look that said wouldn't it be wonderful if only they were fit enough to clear the frogs from their throats.

Then, when last drinks were served and the band ready to strike up the last number, word would filter through from the back of the room that, hold up everybody, Jackie, Johnny or Jimmy, or whatever his name was, had been cured miraculously and felt able to grace the occasion with a song after all.

At this stage, with the band grinding their teeth in annoyance, the late, late guest would be invited up to the microphone. 'Ah no, God, I wouldn't want to go up there where everybody would be looking at me, I'll sing from down here', he would reply modestly.

There would then follow a minute or two of chaos as our friend's pals hissed for 'Quiet' and 'One voice only' and somebody else would try and take the microphone from the stage and carry it down the room. Despite all the feedback howls and noise from the PA speakers, the microphone would eventually find its way to our man who, only at this stage, deemed to stand up. Naturally, wild applause greeted his appearance because, up to then, not everybody in the room knew exactly which one of the lads was the actual singer.

I tell you folks, these guys were past masters at acting and would not have been out of place at the Academy Awards. At this stage, usually, one of two things happened. Our singer would bang his fist off the microphone to ensure that it was live and would impress his pals by calling up to the musicians and enquiring if they had sent down the best microphone and was the echo chamber on? Needless to say, much knowing nods at the mention of an echo chamber.

However, the real prima donna would stretch the game out a little longer and up the ante by declaring that, despite all the trouble of getting the microphone to him, he would sing without it. At this point the frozen smiles on the faces of the musicians would almost crack but there would be a murmur of approval from the crowd in appreciation of a courageous singer who didn't need any new fangled apparatus to perform.

At long last, our hero would break into song and, more often than not, he wouldn't be half bad at all. With the cheers and appluse ringing in his ears, he would then sit down and, with all the aplomb of a statesman waving at his people from a limousine, he would smile knowingly and decline to perform an encore.

'Thank you Jackie, Johnny or Jimmy', the band would say, as they prepared to play the national anthem. But then, with the timing of a true artiste and before the first roll was off the snare drum, our man would be back on his feet to launch into his second song. The room was his, the band was snookered and the pub singer had won again.

Much as they drove me crazy in my band days, I always had a sneaking admiration for them and their antics. Sometimes, when we were taking out our equipment, we would hear them holding court in the corner. 'Yerrah', they would inform their fans, 'those modern groups are useless and that festival crowd know eff all about opera!'

Hopefully, they have not really gone away but are just resting and waiting before reclaiming their rightful place in society.

i

There was plenty of 'noise' before the whisper became a scream
Like many people, I am enjoying the current RTE television series 'From a whisper to a scream' but I agree entirely with Irish Times columnist, John Waters, who wrote last week that the title itself was mildly insulting because it inferred that until the 'whisper' of the emerging rock and folk scenes of the 60s and early 70s blossomed into the 'scream' of Van Morrison, U2, Thin Lizzy, Boomtown Rats, Enya, Sinead O'Connor and the Cranberries, nothing of note occurred beforehand.

In other words, the not too thinly veiled implication is that the showbands were rubbish and only a tad better than the Boybands of today. Even the fabulous success of the Corrs is grudgingly acknowledged by some of the 'experts' and I wonder has it something to do with the fact that their father and recently deceased mother, both talented musicians and singers, were members of a cabaret band which performed in the Dundalk area in the 70s. Guilty by association?

John Waters knows what he is talking about because he is a writer with an open mind who was around at the time and, in fact, if my memory is correct, he was road manager for The Freshmen Showband for a couple of years. On the other hand, many of the people sitting in judgement of the showbands today haven't a clue what they are talking about and, indeed, some of their opinions are based on earlier biased accounts from observers who also didn't have a clue.

So how good, or bad, were the showbands and were they really so lacking in originality? A huge part of their success was down to the socio/economic and cultural climate of the period and that is an important angle to the story that I will leave aside for now. Let's confine the discussion to the music, their musicianship and their ability to entertain.

The truth of the matter is that some showbands were excellent, many were plain good, others were mediocre and there were more than a few which were quite poor. In terms of ability on their instruments, many of the showband members were superb. They were masters of their craft and the equal of professionals in any country in the world one cares to mention. In fact, many went on to carve out careers as studio session players and members of the RTE Concert and Symphony Orchestras. Below them were people who were more than adequate while some worked hard to get through the numbers in tune, in time and with the right chords. But, for the most part, they succeeded because they worked and practised hard. In other words, even the humblest showband could play a programme of hundreds of songs and tunes, including the entire Top 20 of the day, and could entertain packed ballrooms by playing live music for anything up to five hours. How many of today's so called name acts could equal that feat?

Rory and Van were ex-showband
People like Rory Gallagher and Van Morrison played in showbands and they didn't become better musicians when they left, they simply played a different kind of music and explored more original and narrower avenues which is fair enough. Colm Wilkinson, now regarded as one of the top musical stars in the world, played for years in a showband. The suggestion is that those left behind in the showbands stayed there because they didn't have the talent to follow suit but that is plain nonsense.

Many stayed because they did not have the drive and ambition of Gallagher and Morrison, others stayed because their family circumstances dictated so and there were those who stayed because they realised they had the chance to make some money and that chance might soon be gone. And how right they were. But the vast majority stayed playing in showbands because they enjoyed doing what they did and they carried on until the winds of change that started the showband era shifted and blew it all away just as quickly as it started.

I personally knew many showband musicians who wrote original material, who could play rock, jazz and blues better than many of the so called rock stars but who decided, for a variety of reasons, to stay where they were. For some of today's writers and commentators to dismiss their talent and their contribution as worthless or some sort of joke is insulting in the extreme. From personal experience, I know that Rory Gallagher had nothing but respect for the guys who played in showbands and, when he was home in Cork and felt like a jam, most of the friends he called up were showband musicians. At the weekend, on Andy O'Mahony's 'The Sunday Show' on Radio 1, I heard bandleader Paddy Cole say that Van Morrison had and has the same attitude.

Incidentally, rarely does one read or hear anything about the legions of dreadful rock bands that never made it because it isn't fashionable to slag those guys off.

During my own showband days I remember once staying for several nights in the same hotel as a top international rock star and his band. Most nights we used to meet up for a few drinks after our respective gigs and he would lecture us showband 'heads' about playing for money when we should be more interested in the music, as he was. The sad thing is that he actually believed what he was saying to us despite the fact that he wouldn't play a note without being paid in advance and his own musicians were half hungry and had to chase him night and day for the lousy few pounds he paid them.