It’s not quite a reunion because they’ve been back for a while. But still the sight of a new Tír na nÓg record on the racks will bring a gentle tear of nostalgia to the eye of anyone who… well, who remembers them, for starters. Although it’s hard not to remember them.
In an early seventies age where band names were either rigidly inflexible two worders, with a punchy bit at the start… Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Foggy Hat; or lifts from either historical or Dickensian prose… Jethro Tull, Uriah Heep, Oliver’s Twisted Sister; Tír na nÓg’s gentle Gaelic lilt, and the mysteries of its correct pronunciation, really stood out from the crowd.
So did their music, three albums (two in the US, where their debut was forgotten) that defied most attempts to categorize them as simple folk rockers by never quite going where they were expected to. Particularly on the third album, where the traditional two man band was suddenly bolstered by the massed hordes of electrical madness… well, a proper rhythm section, anyway… while simultaneously delivering one of the most perfect Nick Drake covers ever.
The new release, as sharp-eyed readers might already be aware, is but a fragment of the album we are truly awaiting; an EP that we reviewed here a short while back. Now Goldmine sits down with Leo O’Kelly both to look back at the duo’s career – and forward to its future.
GM: A lot has been said and written over the years about the UK folk scene of the 60s; but the Irish one rarely gets a mention. What do you remember about it?
LO: The Irish folk club scene was not at all as vibrant as the British scene, and is even less so now. Folk music in Ireland has always been rather conservative in every sense of the word. The clubs were confined to a handful in Dublin, and were as much social as musical. One of the first, and best, was The Auld Triangle in Mount Street…a couple of us would pool petrol resources and take the trip up from Carlow in the early/mid 60s…a lot of people who are still playing now would play there completely acoustically. There weren’t even any mics, but you could on a good night see The Wolfe Tones, Paul Brady, Tony McMahon, members of The Dubliners….
GM: What sort of music were they playing?
LO: The material tended to be traditional, very little original or experimental/crossover. A few other clubs started, The Coffee Kitchen and The Universal, which I, and Sonny, frequented in ’69. Again, little or no original songs, although these clubs were much more contemporary – Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen. Although we really enjoyed our Dublin clubs, the British versions were a lot more exciting to us musically. I mean, John Martyn, Bert Jansch, Shelagh McDonald, Al Stewart, Bridget St.John, Martin Carthy…and more…and more!
GM: So you were kind of out on a limb in Dublin at the time, performing your own material in that environment?
LO: Yes, but we weren’t the only ones. Mellow Candle [featuring the teenaged Alison O’Donnell],although we didn’t know them at the time, and Dr. Strangely Strange, were playing original songs. But the songwriting scene was really that small. Ray Dolan, who wrote “Hey Friend” on our album, also wrote all the material that James & Ray sang…but they didn’t really gig outside of a couple of folk clubs in Dublin..
GM: Sonny & John, the duo formed by Sonny Condell (the other half of Tír na nÓg) and his cousin, John Roberts, were also playing original songs, were’t they?
LO: Yes, and that’s what most impressed me about [them], they only did their own material…. It was really unheard of…apart from Dr.Strangely Strange.
GM: How did you come to meet them?
LO: I met Sonny in ’68 in a ballad lounge in Carlow, where he came to play with John. They were replacing another duo, Homer Nods, and I only realized halfway through the show that it wasn’t them! Later, I borrowed Sonny’s Harmony Sovereign guitar, and sang Joni Mitchell’s “Night In The City.” The strap was a large piece of carpet from the shop Sonny worked in…and kept slipping off!
Then the following year, when I hitch hiked to Dublin to seek my fortune, Sonny & John spotted me with my sleeping bag and guitar as they were driving to The Coffee Kitchen and told me to hop in.
GM: You were not exclusively a folkie back then; you were also a member of a showband, the Tropical, and a psychedelic band, the Word.
LO: I joined The Word when I was 17… they were a lot more groovy than The Tropical, and both were embarrassed that I was playing with the other, but in fact a lot of the “cool” stuff like “I Fought The Law,” we would have done in the Showband.
The Word, all around my age, had been doing Tamla, Stax, and The Who… you could say they were Mods. But when I joined in ’67, a lot of things had suddenly landed on Earth from who knows where! Jimi Hendrix, Love, The Doors, Velvet Underground… so the Mods transformed into Hippies.
GM: Tír na nÓg are regarded as a folk act… but really, you stepped beyond that. What were your musical influences?
LO: Our house was pop; Elvis, Lonnie Donegan, Mario Lanza… their records were all over the living room table, EPs, LPs, 78s, 45s. But I also loved what was happening in Britain, Fairport, Bert Jansch, John Renbourne… I recently re-bought Bert & John. I loved Jackson C Frank, Donovan and… oh yes… Bob Dylan.
But I was very influenced by Sonny… he was the first real songwriter I had ever encountered, and was so pleased to be playing with him…I started to write more when we got together…well, [once[ we had records coming out, so I had to!
GM: Were you writing songs before that?
LO: I was, but we did very little of my material. None of the "beat groups" played their own stuff... even Phil Lynott with his group, Skid Row, would just sing covers, like “So You Wanna Be A Rock'n'Roll Star,” “Tin Soldier,” “Strawberry Fields,” etc.
I'd already written Tír na nÓg's “Looking Up,” but thought it too... I don't know what... for The Word. I had an idea that we could adapt some trad to rock, but it was quickly dismissed... although in fact Thin Lizzy and Horslips would later do just that.
GM: So, you hitch hiked to Dublin, met up with Sonny and John... what happened next?
LO: I joined a folk band called Emmet Spiceland, who had recently had big hit songs in Ireland. I replaced Donal Lunny, who came back later, and we finished up playing a residency in Labrador at the end of '69... having gigged that year in Germany, Britain, Chicago and Toronto, as well as playing all over Ireland.
In the meantime, Sonny & John changed their name to Tramcarr 88 and had a number 6 chart hit in Ireland, and the seed of thought of moving to Britain with Sonny and John had been sown. Emmet Spiceland asked me to stay with the group, and then John decided to stay on the farm...so Sonny and I rehearsed some songs with the view to playing together, but keep our solo identities(which we only recovered years later).
LO: Ambition was a big part alright, but there was nothing left for us at home. It was like being on a ledge and the only choice was to jump. We saved £30 each and just took the boat, without any arrangements, phone numbers (no-one even had a phone!).
We arrive off the boat train in London on a sunny Saturday in May '70... went straight to an address in Petticoat Lane of some school friends of mine... but they were "full up. We had a pint in a pub on Petticoat Lane called The Bell... got a weekend residency there for the following Saturdays and Sundays for £8 a night... and we were set up...apart from having no place to live!
Sonny knew, not so well, the daughter of some family friends who lived in Ealing [away on the other side of the city], so it was nightfall when we arrived totally unexpectedly there. The landlady was sitting on the doorstep in her nightdress, and it was immediately apparent that the poor woman was insane. “They’ve got sailors upstairs…. go away” she said.
I said we’d come all the way from Ireland, detecting a slight brogue from her. She asked where and when I said “Carlow” she said “Lovely Carlow… come in.” It turned out there were no sailors, but the three girls were soon to have a couple of folk singers sleeping on their floor…until they, the girls, eventually moved out!
GM: And the night was still young; didn’t you arrange your first demo session that same evening as well? And you had a record deal within a couple of weeks. How did it all come together so quickly?
LO: The girls invited us to a party across the road as soon as we’d put our suitcases down. A guy asked us what we were doing in London. We told him we we were looking for a recording contract… he said we’d need a demo and that he was a studio engineer. He sneaked us in a few days later and we recorded “Our Love Will Not Decay,” “Time Is Like A Promise” and “Daisy Lady.”
We took it to Island which was our first choice… they were nice but said no, and then the receptionist directed us to Chrysalis who said yes.
GM: Chrysalis was just starting up at that time… I’m not sure they even had the label in place. A few of their earliest releases appeared on Island instead, Jethro Tull included… and yourselves.
LO: Our first single, “I’m Happy To Be,” came out on Island; as did “Our Love Will not Decay,” on the El Pea sampler. So we actually got on the first two companies we went to!
GM: And things just got crazier from there.
LO: Well, we were immediately plunged into touring. A lot with Jethro Tull… we played the Royal Albert Hall a couple of times with them, in October that year.. .totally awesome. It was nice to be able to invite the boss of The Bell and his family, who gave us our first gig on Petticoat Lane.
In fact, the Jethro Tull story continues.. We gigged with them again two years ago at The National Concert Hall, Dublin. An James Anderson, Ian’s son, filmed us at our last London gig, with the intention of us doing a “virtual tour” on Ian’s worldwide solo tour, which has just started and will continue for the next couple of years. They’ve filmed a few of their favorite acts who have gigged with them over the years, and will screen the performances before the shows.
GM: Looking back through your old press, there was a lot of comparisons with the Incredible String Band, but I also hear elements of early Tyrannosaurus Rex and Medicine Head in your sound. Is that a consequence of you all being duos, do you think, or was there a common root or influence that you could all have been drawing from?
LO: I don’t know if there was really a common root. Well, the Incredibles are just totally uncategorizable, and Tyrannosaurus Rex and Medicine Head are more blues based, though we gigged with them both. I just love all three. There’s the curly/straight hair connection, of course! Really I would just describe us as two guys with guitars and bongos…we didn’t have much of an idea what we were doing…we just did it.
GM: Your first two albums remain … they’re just spooky-beautiful perfection. And then the third, you decided to rock out. What happened?
LO: We recorded the entire Strong In The Sun album in Sound Techniques Studio with Tony Cox producing again, but just as we were mixing it, Chris Wright, the Chrysalis boss, heard tracks we’d done the first day and suggested/ordered we took the same songs and do them all again at Air Studios with Matthew Fisher producing and different session musicians.
It seemed a bit of a task, but we welcomed to opportunity to do it even better. It was great working with Matthew and Geoff Emerick engineering.
GM: You also visited the States in 1972
LO: We toured the USA with Procol Harum and Steeleye Span in ’72, as well as playing our own week long residencies at Passim’s Harvard, Grapevine Hollywood, and a week with my already hero Tom Rush at The Cellar Door Washington, and with David Bromberg in Philadelphia.
GM: And then you disappeared.
LO: Quite frankly, Chrysalis were not showing the same enthusiasm. We were recorded, managed, agencied, published and publicized by the same company, so if you fell out with one of them, even the office boy wouldn’t speak to you.
We were overworked, as were a lot of acts then, but when we asked them to cut the gigs to three or four a week, except when we were on a tour, they pulled the rug altogether, and literally said “How do you like that then, lads?”
Our manager, who was managing director of Chrysalis even told us he had “deliberately hampered” our careers after we’d asked them, eighteen months earlier, to ease up on the live gigs a bit. So that encouraged us to leave. We valued our freedom and our music more than anything else, and the workload was not inspiring for us. We weren’t the type to be singing about Greyhound Buses!
LO: I’d always wanted to produce, ever since working with wonderful people like Bill Leader… he came to see us play in Manchester last year. So I produced several albums for Polydor and EMI…. Loudest Whisper’s Children Of Lir album was my first production in’75, and I should have asked to get paid in LPs, as I’m told it is now one of the most sought after and valuable albums around.
I enjoyed it all, but not as much as I’d hoped. Meanwhile, I’d gathered a rather large backlog of girlfriends and ex-girlfriends in Dublin over the previous couple of years, which didn’t please my new “steady” girlfriend…so we both escaped to Amsterdam… a good place to escape to… lots more gigs, but no girlfriends!
GM: Sonny also continued playing, didn’t he?
LO: Sonny had started playing solo in Dublin, and he and I had good solo scenes in Toners, Dublin. It was around then that Sonny formed Scullion, who still record and gig.
GM: And slowly, you drifted back together. The “reunion” seems to have been very gentle… no fuss, no big “we’re back” banners. Is it a “full time” thing or are you both also working elsewhere?
LO: We both work separately. Sonny gigs intermittently with Scullion, Sonny, Philip King and Robbie Overson, and they are a very popular act in Ireland… much more so than Tír na nÓg, who would be much better known overseas. We’ve released a couple of live albums together… the first one, Hibernian, was recorded inadvertently in Birmingham, on wax cylinder by the sound of it…and Live At Sirius, which we are very proud of, was just released here, and has already produced more modest royalties than all our Chrysalis albums put together. And we still record solo. Sonny’s last album, Swallows & Farms, and my last album, Will, are among our very favourites, and our audience’s.
GM: And so to the new EP. Bloody marvelous! How did come to make contact with Fruits de Mer?
LO: A friend of ours, Trevor Boyd, introduced us to a friend of FdM when we played in London last year…The boss, Keith Jones, who we have yet to have the pleasure of meeting, contacted us… and the rest has yet to be history!
We are very pleased to be recording with such a cool, and great, company. We are so impressed with the care and attention they put into every detail to make it so good for you all out there.
GM: How did you come to record that amazing version of “I Have Known Love”?
LO: When Keith suggested one cover, it sprang to mind…I’d sung the song at a couple of my solo gigs, but never tried it in the folky way we do it until the morning we recorded it. It’s quite a psych/folk anthem!
GM: Finally… future plans?
We plan to record some more this year. We’ve already got a few short tours coming up in Britain. Sonny and I rarely, if ever, make plans, or even have discussions about what we are doing, we’ve always been like that. Although we rarely even meet socially, we have a great sense of communication, both on and off stage. It just takes a nod from one of us to move in any direction…..
A prodigious writer, fierce music lover and longtime record collector, Dave Thompson is the author of over 150 books, including the just-published Roger Waters: The Man Behind the Wall; and an upcoming biography of Robert Plant. He is also author of Goldmine’s “Standard Catalog of American Records 1950-1990, 8th Edition” and Goldmine’s “Record Album Price Guide 7th Edition , both of which are published via Krause Publications and are available at www.krausebooks.com – See more at: http://www.goldminemag.com/collector-resources/spin-cycle/record-fair-report-pennsylvania-music-expo#sthash.bk3oGHhG.dpuf.