- 21 Jun 07
30th Anniversary Retrospective: Former staff writer and Assistant Editor Liam Mackey reels in the Hot Press years.
There is an absurd rumour going around that hotpress is 30 years old. Yeah, right.
That would mean that it’s 30 years since the Sex Pistols released ‘God Save The Queen’. And The Clash had their ‘White Riot’. And Lizzy were dancing in the moonlight. And Geldof was looking after number one. And The Radiators were smashing that telecaster through the television screen. And Rory was lording it over all the rest, on the cover of the first ever issue of this here magazine.
30 years ago? I don’t think so. And here’s the clincher: since your present correspondent made his debut in the third issue of hotpress, at the tender age of 18, that would mean that I am now (counts on fingers, frowns, continues counting, runs out of fingers, moves on to toes, runs out of toes, turns pale) well, see what I mean? Clearly, that’s impossible.
So let’s all agree that hotpress is, what, three years old? 13 at a stretch?
That would explain how I am able to remember in vivid detail the cover of the first album I ever reviewed. That, and the fact that the infant hotpress photo library was so malnourished in the summer of ‘77 that nearly all the reviews had to be accompanied by a pic of the relevant album cover. Which generally wasn’t a problem except that, in my case, I had spent the best part of a week sucking on a leaky biro, writing and furiously rewriting an introductory paragraph which described the said album cover in laborious detail, the idea being that the warrior guitar-hero image it showcased – all raised axe and lightning bolts – pretty much conveyed all one needed to know about the contents within. “Picture, if you will”, I began, striking what I believed was a suitably imperious tone, the lofty voice of the critic in residence. But the readers didn’t have to picture anything. Because when they – and I – opened up the mag, there were my carefully crafted words and the album cover itself side by side, the whole thing coming across like a dull, pointless echo or some kind of awkward journalistic stammer.
The album? Oh, it was something by Pat Travers of, um, Pat Travers Band fame. Where is he now, I wonder? And did he ever read that review? Or, since it amounted to much the same thing, did he just look at the picture?
Anyway, I survived to write another day, as did hotpress, which is why I am sitting here all these years and millions of words later, recalling a review of an album that the bould Pat himself probably doesn’t even remember making.
There is a silly theory that the ‘70s was the decade that taste forgot. Not if you were up to your neck in yoof culture at the time, it wasn’t (and managed to quickly move on from Pat Travers albums, of course). hotpress was born at a lively juncture in Ireland, a moment when the island’s innate musicality met the punk DIY ethic head on, and sparks flew on a regular basis in small, clammy venues from Dublin to Cork to Belfast.
By virtue of age, if not hair-length, I became the paper’s de facto punk correspondent, even if my own musical leanings pre-punk tended to stuff as varied as the J. Geils Band, Bob Dylan, Marc Bolan, Rory Gallagher, the Blue Oyster Cult and Horslips. No matter. For live in-yer-face thrills and spills, there was nothing to beat nights in places like Morans and the Baggot and the Spinning Wheel in the company of, first, the Rats and then the Radiators, the Vipers, Revolver and, on the odd time they popped down for a visit, the Undertones.
Somewhere in the vaults of RTÉ – hopefully in a lead-lined container – is footage of yours truly in the Project Arts Theatre some time in 1978, I think, dutifully scribbling in my little notebook, just like a proper journalist, while the Vipers, Revolver and a crowd called the Kamikaze Kids blasted from the stage.
The latter ensured me a measure of immortality that my scribblings never would. The nostalgic thing to say about punk now is that it struck a blow for freedom of expression, allowing every spotty oik with a pencil and a cheap guitar their day in the sun. What isn’t always noted is that some of them had absolutely nothing whatsoever of value to say but, under the prevailing rules of engagement, were encouraged to say it anyway, and at ear-splitting volume.
The Kamikaze Kids were so bad that I figured they might even be a calculated joke, the first merry pranksters of punk, and said so in the review, which I concluded by observing that if, on the other hand, they were in deadly earnest, it was perhaps already time “to kiss sanity goodbye”.
A week or two later, there was a snippet in Heat – Ireland’s leading fanzine – saying that the Kids were out to get Liam Mackey and had already penned a new anthem, a vitriolic put-down called ‘Kiss Sanity Goodbye’. Friendly voices on the punk scene warned me to be on my guard in certain venues and at certain gigs but, in truth, I was never remotely alarmed, mainly because the only other thing of note I remembered about that Kamikaze Kids gig was that their guitarist wore a lovely Daz-white boiler-suit on which was scrawled the frankly less than terrifying legend: “Rathfarnham Rebel Rockers”.
So hotpress covered punk, but it was by no stretch of the imagination a punk publication. While the inkies in England were increasingly in thrall to whatever was deemed to be the flavour of the week – the battle to be the first to nab The Next Big Thing quickly becoming the music press equivalent of the tabloid bingo wars – hotpress was always an equal opportunities champion of trad and folk and singer-songwriters and new wave and reggae and hard rock and blues and soul and whatever the hell it was that Five Go Down To The Sea were up to that week. If the noise happened to be riding high in charts and minds, grand, but if it only sold a few hundred copies yet rocked our world – like the Radiators’ classic 1978 album Ghostown – it was still guaranteed the red carpet treatment.
In essence, the magazine simply reflected the diverse passions of the people who wrote for it, and none was more passionate, or for that matter more diverse, than the late Bill Graham.
Bill was there from the get-go and, more than any other writer in the early days, defined what the magazine was about and what it could be. He was the best kind of critic: informed, incisive, uncompromising but entirely lacking in personal malice. He had an exceptional eye for nascent talent: it is no surprise at all that he is widely credited with discovering the fledgling U2. He wrote brilliantly, drew on an apparently infinite well of knowledge about just about everything under the sun, and transmitted all his diverse enthusiasms – to readers, fellow writers, musicians and anyone else who expressed an interest – with such generosity of spirit and intellectual excitement that the spoken word could sometimes struggle to keep up with the flow of ideas in his head. (And not least, of course, when the conversation was happening in the wee hours in the Pink Elephant.) Long before the internet, we were all in the habit of googling Bill and came to cherish the classic ejaculation – a loud ‘Ah!’ – which signalled yet another eureka moment in the mind of the only certified genius most of us have had the pleasure of knowing as a friend and comrade.
With Bill as our resident renaissance man, it became feasible to develop hotpress along the lines commander-in-chief Niall Stokes had always envisaged: a paper which would be not just about the music but about what the music was about – and that meant nothing was off limits, with the possible exception of a bridge column.
The urgent imperative simply to survive in the early days, to just get the damn thing out on time every fortnight after yet another mad production cycle, meant that it took a while for the grand design to take shape, but by the mid-’80s hotpress was getting into its stride and suddenly we were all over the mainstream press like a rash after Charlie Haughey had effed and blinded his way through a celebrated encounter with John Waters. The hotpress Interview had arrived with a bang. Like all good ideas, it was a simple one: sit the interviewee down, turn on the tape, make sure somewhere along the way to ask them about their mating habits and whether they’d ever perchance inhaled, and then carefully transcribe and print the whole exchange verbatim.
A Who’s Who of the great and the not so good have reclined on the HP couch over the years, frequently with headline-grabbing results, as evidenced even in recent weeks by the furore arising out of the Ian Paisley Jnr interview. Sadly, my own contribution to the canon was not one of them – or at least, not immediately. And thereby hangs the tale of The One That Got Away.
In 1986, myself and ace snapper Colm Henry headed off to Galway for an appointment with Bishop Eamon Casey. It was a prestigious gig for the mag, even if we had to accept in advance that there was unlikely to be too much in the way of intimate personal revelation. I mean, who’d ask a Bishop to recount the first time he’d ever made love, right?
Still, the divorce referendum was in the air and, since one of the mag’s smaller ambitions was to bring down the Catholic Church (indeed, all religions worldwide, we weren’t fussy), myself and the Bishop had what you might describe as a full and frank exchange of views. I found that I actually liked the man and, as I pushed him on the human rights dimension of divorce, began to form the opinion that he was genuinely torn between his basic humanity and the cast-iron teachings of his church.
Anyway, it was around this point in proceedings that a strange thing happened. The Bishop had just said something to the effect of how he’d always tried to do the right thing when, suddenly, without warning, he broke down, burying his face in his hands.
In the long eerie silence which ensued, it was clear that I had a Big Decision to make. My options were stark. I could shine a bright light in his eyes, slap him about the face a bit and tell him that hotpress had ways of making him answer our questions. Alternatively, I could have adopted the Joe ‘The Doctor Will See You Now’ Jackson technique, peering deep into his soul and reminding him that people are only as sick as the secrets they keep. “C’mon, Your Grace,” I might have whispered softly, sympathetically, “let it all out. You can trust me. I am a professional, after all.”
But, of course, I did neither of these things. Instead, I looked at Colm, he looked at me and, stopping just short of offering the distressed interviewee a paper hankie, we allowed the moment to pass. Then, with the Bishop having composed himself, we resumed the interview as though nothing had happened. The results duly appeared in the next issue of hotpress and the earth conspicuously failed to shift on its axis.
Fast forward six years, and the Annie Murphy story breaks like a tsunami across the nation. We now learn that, at the time at which I had conducted the interview with Bishop Casey, he was the father of a young fella growing up in the States. Now, retrospectively, my old interview seemed loaded with revealed meaning, a veritable warning from history. “We live in an era of lack of self-control,” he’d told me at one point. To which, six years on, you could only remark: you can say that again, Bish.
So, I never did get that Pulitzer but, on the other hand, if I’d never worked for hotpress, neither would I have had such indelible experiences as being told repeatedly by Van Morrison that my questions were stupid, or having a ringside seat as U2 wowed America on The Joshua Tree tour, or being put up in a brothel in Birmingham by UB40. And thanks indirectly to some football pieces which I began writing for the mag in the ‘80s, I now find myself spending large amounts of my life travelling the world as a football writer for the Irish Examiner. (Asked how I made the leap from rock ‘n’ roll to football, I like to point out that since the big beat cleaned up its act, all the best drugs are in sport nowadays. At which point, people usually laugh nervously and start backing away).
But as I think back over the hotpress years, what sticks out most in the mind is the sheer talent in the room and – when there weren’t tears and rows and bitching and people falling in and out of love (and that was just a Monday production night) – the amount of gut-busting laughs we had. It was always a lively, encouraging home for writers and maverick creative types of all sorts, many of whom have gone on to become established journalists, broadcasters, authors, playwrights, musicians, designers, photographers, food critics (!), war correspondents (!!) and, in the case of Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan, BAFTA award-winners for a certain Father Ted, a character I recall making his first appearance in the hotpress office when Arthur would keep us all entertained with hilarious homilies into an invisible broken mic on those long production nights.
Long ago, I dubbed hotpress “the Home Farm of Irish journalism”, and the continuing impact of so many alumni across all kinds of media at home and abroad gives me no reason to reconsider. But, more importantly, hotpress itself is still on the go, a hell of an achievement in the precarious world of publishing and, though much changed from the early years, it continues to play host to some of the most talented people in Irish journalism.
As a reader, it’s a pleasure to savour something like Olaf Tyaransen’s remarkable interview with Johnny Adair, the snap, crackle and pop of Stuart Clark, the sharp and sassy movie reviews of Tara Brady or anything at all by Peter Murphy, comfortably one of the best critics on these islands. And then there’s the incomparable McCann, still wielding words as weapons, razor-sharp, funny and as street-wise as ever.
So, from one grizzled campaigner, here’s a salute to my old mucker Captain Stokes and all who sail on the good ship hotpress. But, please, let’s ditch this 30 years nonsense, okay? I seem to recall, right back at the start, a staffer announcing that she would throw a party if the magazine made it to the sixth issue. Well, put on your glad rags, there’s not long to go now.
Liam Mackey is the Soccer Correspondent for the Irish Examiner.