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The Secret History of the Cranberries
, 06 May 1996
I have to say that I'd make a lousy A&R man. Apart from the fact that I consider both pony-tails and Phil Collins tour jackets to be crimes against humanity, there's also the small matter of me not being able to recognise 'the next big thing' if it came up, introduced itself and said it couldn't stay long because it was off to record its first platinum album.
Then again, even Mystic Meg would've had trouble predicting Late Night With Letterman slots and Chilean number ones for The Cranberry Saw Us on the strength of their first ever gig at Limerick's Flat Cafi. It wasn't that the band were crap, just mind-numbingly heard-it-all-before average.
"I wouldn't have been too excited about us either," laughs original singer Niall Quinn whose departure from the Cranberry ranks after just ten shows opened the door for Dolores. "I was the drummer in a band called The Hitchers who'd started in January 1989 and Ferg, Mike and Noel were three of the people who regularly turned up at our shows. The first time I really got talking to them was the night we played support at The Granary to Up The Downstairs whose own singer, Sett, is not incestuously enough, the Cranberries' tour manager.
"Anyway, it turns out that they were looking to start their own band, while I wanted to indulge my ego and be the frontman in a second one. I didn't think too much about it until two or three weeks later when I was on my way home from school and the boys pulled up beside me in the little white car they used to zip around in. They asked, 'are you up for it?'. I said, 'yes', and we had our first rehearsal at Ferg's parents' house a few days after. That would've been early September and we played the Flag gig on November 18th."
Long since consigned to the bulldozer, the Flag was one of those alternative lifestyle-efforts which provided a safe haven for lentil-munching transvestites of diminutive stature, and which was about as well suited to live music as Daniel O'Donnell's front-room is to satanic black masses.
Despite having to compete with mushroom quiches and colonic irrigation classes, The Cranberry Saw Us' set went down well enough for them to be offered another gig at Cruise's Hotel supporting The Stunning, and cut-price recording time in a local studio.
"Back then," Quinn continues, "the whole Limerick music scene was centred around Xeric which was - and still is - run by The Cranberries' old manager, Pearse Gilmore. I think he was impressed by the fact that whereas other bands were rehearsing there once or twice a week, the lads were booked in every other day.
"The 20 million unit record sales disparity which exists between us (the Hitchers) and them is mainly down to the professional attitude that we've always wanted and they've always had!
"For a band that had been together for less than four months, the demo wasn't bad. The songs we did were 'Throw Down The Big Star's, 'Good Morning God', 'How's It Going To Bleed?' - myself and Noel wrote that - and 'Storm In a Teacup'. We only sent out a handful of tapes - one of which I seem to remember getting played on the Stuart Clark Rock Show on Radio Limerick."
Ah yes, whatever did happen to that velvet-larynxed lad who once tantalised the Mid-West with his unfeasibly large collection of Carter USM records? For those of you who through some oversight missed the programme, The Cranberries Mk.1 mixed cast-off Pixies riffs with the sort of lyrical tomfoolery that even the full-Pinged Sultans would have dismissed as being too OTT. As for Niall Quinn, his association with the nascent supergroup would scarcely outlast the winter.
"There's been some incredible stuff written about why I quite The Cranberries," he reflects. "There was even a bit in some Dutch magazine recently which said that I was this Syd Barrett-like character who'd been carted off to mental hospital but the truth of the matter is that I left to concentrate on The Hitchers who were more my cup of tea.
"It all came to a head in February or March, 1990. Noel called up to the house to let me know about this whole realm of gigs he'd arranged and I had to tell him, 'sorry but my heart's not in it'. It had gotten to the stage where they were giving it 100%, and I was just doing it as a hobby which wasn't fair on them."
Concerned that he was letting the lads down, Niall offered to help recruit his replacement.
"They tried out two blokes I sent their way, neither of whom clicked. They then decided that maybe they'd be better off with a girl," he explains. "Anyway, I just happened to bump into a friend of mine, Catherine Hayes, who said, 'there's someone in my sister's class at Laurel Hill who's got a brilliant voice, do you want me to get her number for you?' When she did, I gave Dolores a buzz and arranged for her to come up to Xeric for a try out."
The resulting meeting of musical minds wasn't exactly spontaneous, O'Riordan's novel approach to fashion nearly earning her the 'don't call us, we'll call you' treatment before she'd sung a note.
"She arrived in wearing a shiny pink track-suit and with a Casio keyboard stuck under her arm," Quinn winces. "Mike just looked at me and said, 'what the fuck are you trying to do to us?' He was all for cutting their losses and buggering off to the pub but seeing as she was there, they decided to go ahead with the original plan which was playing Dolores a couple of our songs and seeing then what she was capable of herself.
"So, after duly trotting out our stuff which she thought, yeah, she could do something with," she plugged in her keyboard and announced she was going to do a Siniad O'Connor cover. Before she'd got halfway through the first verse, everyone's jaw was hanging down.
"Even afterwards, though, Mike still had his doubts. He agreed she had a great voice but kept going 'look at the fucking state of her, you can't put that on stage!'. But they stuck with it and the rest, as they say, is history."
Pictorial evidence that Dolores wasn't quite in the Linda Evangelista league yet is provided by the first photo session the newly-abbreviated Cranberries shot out near the University of Limerick campus in Plassey.
Sharp enough nowadays to cut yourself on, the O'Riordan cheekbone were back then buried under several pounds of puppy fat and totally devoid of make-up. As for her taste in numbers, let's just say that her chunky knitwear phase must have been the result of some pretty heavy maternal pressure.
"Oh God, you're not going to print any of those, are you?" she groans. "I supposed back then I was your classic tomboy and it was only when the band really took off and we started doing things like the Rolling Stone cover that I thought it'd be fun to muck around with my image. I remember early on stylists saying, 'you should do this with your hair and that with your hair', and me pissing them off by having it all cropped! I suppose I've always had this rebellious streak whereby if someone's trying to force me into something, I'll do the exact opposite."
Dolores is adamant that even if the shiny pink track-suit had cost her the audition, she'd still be making a living out of music.
"If the lads hadn't given me the gig, I'd probably have done my Leaving Cert and gone off to find a band in Dublin or London," she muses. "At first my parents were like, 'umm, who are these guys?', but then they came round the house one afternoon and they realised they were relatively harmless."
Within a month of her joining, Dolores had co-conspired with Noel Hogan to write the two songs which eventually led to The Cranberries cracking America - 'Dreams' and 'Linger'.
"Before Dolores arrived on the scene, The Cranberries were very much the junior band in Limerick," recalls former They Do It With Mirrors drummer Damian Clifford. "The scene back then was actually very healthy. We'd just about done a deal with Setanta to go over to England, A Touch Of Oliver were in a similar position with Bar None in the States and The Hitchers were regularly getting 300 or 400 people at their gigs.
"To be honest, when Niall left we all thought they'd fold, but then they found Dolores and recorded a demo which was far, far better than it had a right to be. The bastards had only been together a matter of weeks and they'd come up with two hit singles!"
One person acutely aware of The Cranberries' surfeit of talent was Pearse Gilmore who promptly signed them to his Elohim management company. Their relationship may have ended 18 months later in legal acrimony - and a gagging order preventing either side from discussing the details - but Clifford is among the many observers who feels Gilmore's contribution to the band's success has been underrated.
"When you're starting off, finding money to rehearse and record is a real hassle," he continues, "but as soon as Pearse came on board, The Cranberries were able to spend as much time as they wanted doing both. From what I remember, they were in Xeric five or six days a week, writing and practising and generally getting their shit together. Ferg, in particular, suddenly became this amazing fucking drummer and you knew that something major was brewing."
As adept as they were in the studio, The Cranberries initially had serious problems doing the business live. Their first Dolores-fied gig was downstairs at Cruise's Hotel and as promoter Bob O'Connell recalls, it proved to be very much a qualified success.
"From the point of view of getting up on stage and completing their set, they did well because Dolores was sick beforehand with nerves. It was a Leaving Cert results night with The Cranberries playing support to They Do It With Mirrors and I guess there were 60 or 70 people there which, as the venue was so small, meant it was stuffed. I didn't actually see them myself because I was too busy running around organising things, but I'm told Dolores basically spent the whole gig devising ways of not having to look at the crowd. Musically, though, the comments were virtually all favourable."
"It wasn't just Dolores who was shitting herself," reveals the stage manager that night, Eugene Larkin. "Noel, for example, had to be convinced that it really would be better if he didn't play behind the drumkit and apart from Ferg, who was a bit of a lad, I can't remember any of them grunting more than the odd word.
"What I do remember, however, is that they played an absolutely wonderful version of 'Linger' which, so legend has it, was about a former boyfriend of Dolores', Woggie, who was this mad Jesus & The Mary Chain fan from Glasgow."
"She may have gone through agonies up there," O'Connell resumes, "but I remember meeting Dolores the next day outside Supermac's and her saying, 'I'm doing nothing else for the rest of my life. 'tis a great job!"
Much has been made of the fact that whereas even now the lads are regularly spotted propping up the bar in old haunts like Termights and Tom Collins', Dolores' visits to Limerick are rarer than a Manchester United away win in Europe. Does it bother her that this is viewed in some local circles as an act of betrayal?
"What people forget is that I was never a city girl," she pleads in her defence, "I came in every day to go to Laurel Hill, sure, but as soon as school finished I'd head back home (to Balbricken), and that's where most of my friends would have been.,
"I think that's why I was so shy when I joined. There were gigs and rehearsals where all the lads' mates turned up and I didn't know anybody, and that used to freak me out a bit."
And when Dolores did move into town, it was to set up home with songwriter boyfriend Mike O'Mahoney, who at the time was working in Xeric. The allegedly tempestuous side of their relationship is now the subject of possible court proceedings, but Eugene Larkin remembers them as a close, very private couple.
"Something that sticks in my mind is Dolores out from time to time having a pint, but when Mike arrived on the scene, she turned into a real homebody. Which is fair enough because she seemed to be genuinely in love."
Having survived their baptism of fire at Cruise's, The Cranberries became almost omnipresent on the Limerick live circuit, using these gigs and a constant stream of demo tapes to seduce, among others, freelance journalist and talent scout Jim Carroll.
"I first came into the picture at the tail end of 1990," he explains. "I was doing A&R at the time for the English indie label, Dedicated, and started hearing rumours about this amazing band from Limerick called The Cranberries.
"Word had it they were meant to be signing to Rough Trade but knowing how these things can fall through, I decided I might as well go down and check 'em out. That would have been in the middle of January 1991 when they played at the University of Limerick Stables Club. It's a big L-shaped venue and I'd say of the 200 or 300 people who were there a maximum of 40 were watching the band.
"How did they sound? Dead cool. Really fresh and exciting and unlike anything that was going on at the time in Dublin. It was obvious that they knew fuck all about stage projection, but the fact that it wasn't contrived only added to the charm.
"Apart from myself," Carroll continues, "the only other industry people there were Olan MacGowan from Sony and RTE's Colm O'Callaghan who wrote a review of the gig for Hot Press."
That he did, wrapping up a suitably glowing testimonial to the band's youthful talents with the assertion that, "The Cranberries are twenty of your sweetest dreams and an unending walk down Paradise Way." Mills & Boon, eat your heart out!
"Colm, I know, loved 'em," Carroll concurs, "and Olan was relieved that, finally, here was a young Irish pop group that had absolutely no interest in being the new U2. In that respect, they fell into the same 'culchies with attitude' bracket as the Franks and Sultans who were both starting to take off big time in Cork and had a similar lack of respect for the stadium rock brigade."
Yup, The Cranberries circa 1996 may be a huge international money-making machine, but there was a time when they were veritable indie darlings, mentioned in the same revered tones as your Bjvrks and PJ Harveys and not - whisper it quietly - the least big corporate.
"Never in a million years did I think they'd get to where they are now," Carroll admits. "As a cross between the Sundays and the Cocteaus - with a bit of Mary Margaret O'Hare thrown in for good measure - I'd have reckoned on them having a couple of top 10 indie singles and then, if the British inkies really got behind them, possibly going mainstream top 30.
"In other words, exactly the sort of act Dedicated were interested in at that stage, so I got onto my boss, Doug Darcy, and said, 'you won't believe what I've just found. This lot are fucking awesome'. I sent over a tape, they agreed with me and for a while Dedicated were very much in the race to sign them."
The value of The Cranberries' stock increased sharply with the release of Nothing Left At All, a Gilmore-financed 5-track cassette EP which was the cause of much salivating in British A&R circles.
"I realised that a bidding war was building up around them in February when the now-defunct BMG subsidiary, Imago, whisked them off to London for a secret showcase at the Bull & Gate in Islington. Having said that, when The Cranberries did a gig the following month at The Attic, the only people there were ourselves, Imago and possibly six paying customers."
I remember the paper I was working for at the time. The Limerick Tribune, becoming a surrogate Cranberries information service, barely a day passing without some industry type or the other ringing up wanting to know what they were up to. If the thought of all those cheque-books being primed excited them, it certainly didn't show, the band's attitude being that someone else could take care of business while they looked after the music.
"The only person you talked to back then," Jim Carroll elaborates, "was their manager, Pearse Gilmore. A lot of negative stuff's been said about him since but I always thought he was OK. He'd been in a band himself, Private World, so he understood the gigging scene and as the owner of Xeric Studios, he had a good handle on the recording process. Where he fell down, perhaps, is that he was quite shy and seemed ill at ease when it came to negotiating things.
"I think he had a general idea what he wanted out of it - i.e money, security and a kick up the arse for the studio - but he wasn't able to communicate that particularly well to the record companies coming over. It was obvious that, at that stage, he had the band's complete trust and they were happy to let him represent them o every level. A perfect example of how it was a one-man show was their first Island EP, Uncertain. It was recorded in his studio, released on his label. He produced it. He took the photos for the press-pack. He was the man."
Precluded, as Pearse Gilmore is, from talking in detail about the breakdown of the relationship between band and manager, all Fergal is prepared to say now is that "in a way, I'm glad the shit did happen because it forced us to toughen up."
As someone who had numerous encounters with the band in their infancy, would Jim Carroll say that The Cranberries were just a little too wide-eyed and innocent when they started out?
"Yes, they were in some ways incredibly naove, but no more so than any other bunch of 19-year-olds removed from the so-called 'music centres' of the world who suddenly find themselves being courted by the international A&R community. But - and this is an important but - they were bright kids who only had to be told things once to understand how they worked."
The band may have been too busy working on the songs that later made up their Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We? album to realise, but beyond the confines of the studio the battle for their signatures was reaching fever pitch.
"Pearse copped that if Dedicated and Imago were that interested in the band," Carroll proffers, "there was a fair chance the majors would be too, and he was proved right in April when The Cranberries played a University of Limerick Rag Week gig in this huge barn-like venue called the Jetland.
"I'd never encountered anything like it - well, not since An Emotional Fish. Sitting in Jury's before hand, I counted twenty-five A&R people and those are just the ones I recognised. I'd heard through the grapevine that Island were favourites to get 'em and, sure enough, Denny Cordell was at the Jetland and the Cork Rock gig they did at Sir Henry's two or three weeks later. Geoff Travis - who, of course, ended up becoming their manager when Pearse left the fold - was also in Cork making a last ditch attempt to sign them to Blanco Y Negro, but by then Denny had pretty much sewn up the deal."
One of the myths that has been partly propagated by The Cranberries themselves, is that while all this international wheeler-dealering was going on, people at home basically sat by and ignored them.
"They go on a bit about being overlooked by the Irish press," Carroll counters, "but I've checked my diaries and when that first record came out in September 1991, I arranged eight interviews for them - all of which were published.
"As with a lot of bands, there's been a tendency on The Cranberries' part to indulge in revisionist history. OK, there was a bit of a backlash in Britain when the Uncertain EP turned out to be a stinker, but before that they'd had a lot of column inches in the NME and Melody Maker, purely on the strength of the demos."
Reflecting now on some of the more, er, colourful rhetoric that came out of the King's Reach Tower, O'Riordan says she still feels bitter at the way "we were portrayed as stupid little leprechauns who wouldn't cross the road without our Mammies' say-so".
Would their former Irish PR man consider that to be fair comment?
"There are a couple of interviews, in particular, that Dolores keeps referring back to," Jim Carroll resumes. "One, which was headlined "Yo! Bumpkin Rush The Show", was done by Gavin Martin for the NME and has her going on about meeting a black person for the first time on the boat over to England, and the other was an Everett True special in the Melody Maker which resulted from him visiting the O'Riordan family home in Ballbricken.
"I've seen some of the stuff he wrote in it referred to as 'racist' but you've got to remember this was his first time in a rural Irish home and things like Dolores' mum having pictures of the Pope on the wall were only in there as journalistic colour. I can't say for sure because at this stage John Best had taken over their UK press, but I don't remember too many complaints at the time."
Back in 1996 and Dolores O'Riordan is in almost indecently good form, looking forward to going out on the road and giving it some after an eight-month break from gigging.
"At first it was a relief to stop," she gushes, "but then you start missing the buzz of travelling to different places and the sense of family you get from hanging out with the same close-knit group of people, day after day. It's not just the lads I miss but Sett, our tour manager, and Dekko, our roadie, who are both from Limerick and as much a part of The Cranberries as we are.
"There was a time on the last tour when I thought, 'Jeez, I can't keep this up', but one of the luxuries of being successful is that you can say, 'right, we'll do the year-and-a-half long world tour but for every three months on the road, we want two weeks off to chill out."
Kicking off last week in that notorious rock'n'roll hotspot, Bangkok, The Cranberries' latest circumnavigation of the globe will take them well into 1997 with Irish dates provisionally pencilled in for next January. Contrary to popular tabloid opinion, certain members of the entourage won't be travelling first-class while the others go economy.
"If I'm feeling tired," Dolores explains, "I'll sometimes travel to a gig by 'plane while they take the tour bus, but that's as much their decision as it is mine. The lads were friends long before The Cranberries started, so it's understandable that they're going to hang out together while I spend more of my time with Don who, after all, is my husband.
"Some journalist made a big deal of us having separate dressing-rooms which is so fucking stupid. Does he really expect me to get undressed every night in front of three blokes and their mates? Maybe he hasn't noticed, but I'm a woman."
An anorexic one, as some gossip has it?
"No," she replies, a tad wearily. "When The Cranberries started I was 18 and still had my puppy fat but as soon as I hit 20, boom, it all dropped off and everyone started saying 'oh, she's fucked up, she's not eating properly'. This was when we were halfway through a six-month tour and jumping around on stage every night for an hour. You have to be reasonably fit to do that."
OK, your sympathy for anyone who's got - last estimate - #10 million stashed away in the bank is always going to be measured, but there are times listening to O'Riordan on the defensive, that you have to feel sorry for her.
"If it was the music they were slagging off, fine," asserts Fergal Lawlor, "but some of the personal stuff - particularly here and in the UK - has been totally over the top. When she got married, there were these whispers about Don but he's great, thumbs up all the way.
"We definitely have an easier time of things than she does. For instance, we can walk down the street, pretty much anywhere in the world, and no-one knows who the fuck we are. And if you do get recognised, it's usually, 'hi, can we have your autograph?', rather than, ''my boyfriend's left me and I know you understand because you wrote blah, blah, blah in one of your songs'. That sort of thing can get pretty heavy."
If they weren't fannying around the Pacific Rim, I'd check with them, but I'd say given the choice at the moment between having their private lives or their To The Faithful Departed album dissected, The Cranberries would definitely go for the front-page 'world exclusives' in The Sunday Shocker.
Our colonial cousins have been a little kinder, but on this side of the nuclear dumping ground known as the Atlantic, the band's latest offering has been ripped apart with the sort of frenzy normally reserved for the Dublin Zoo lion's enclosure at feeding time.
The main target of this journalistic vitriol has been O'Riordan's lyrics which, well intentioned or not, are just far too trite for their own good.
Examples? How about, "with a Smith & Wesson .38/John Lennon's life was no longer a debate", from 'I Just Shot John Lennon; or, "Bosnia was so unkind, Sarajevo changed my mind/And we all call out in despair, all the love we need isn't there/And as we all sing songs in our room, Sarajevo erects another tomb", from, you've guessed it, 'Bosnia'.
Hasn't Ferg ever been tempted to tap Dolores on the shoulder and say, 'hang on a sec'?
"To tell you the truth, I've never come across anything I've objected to," he insists. "The lyrics are very special to her, they're what's on her mind and that's the way it should be because she's the one who has to sing them. If there was something I really disagreed with, I'd tell her but it hasn't come up."
"Yeah. The lyrics - whatever context they're in - are basically just Dolores' perception of what she sees or what she reads in the paper. She doesn't have to be a politician and get all the facts right. It's her gut reaction and people are free to agree or disagree with what she says."
In the end, it'll be the fans who vote with their wallets, and here's one punter willing to stake his shirt on To The Faithful Departed continuing The Cranberries' multi-platinum exploits.
As many a wise philosopher has said down through the centuries, fuck the begrudgers!