- 12 Nov 20
As Paradise in the Picturehouse gets a special 30th anniversary reissue, Steve Wall reflects on the early years of The Stunning, and discusses the biggest challenges facing artists today.
“1990 was a year in Ireland when so many things were changing,” Steve Wall reflects. “You had this new generation of Irish kids, who hadn’t had every ounce of confidence beaten out of them by the Christian Brothers. It was the year of Italia ‘90 and Jack Charlton. It was the summer of the first Féile. It was a new Ireland. And it was also the summer that our album was No.1.”
It’s been 30 years since The Stunning captured the newfound confidence of the nation with Paradise in the Picturehouse. To celebrate, they’re reissuing their classic debut album on vinyl, and releasing a special accompanying songbook – featuring guitar and piano arrangements, as well as exclusive photos and stories about the songs.
The announcement sparked plenty of excitement among The Stunning’s fanbase – with one particular post from Twitter user @SeamusaCaca perfectly summing up the impact of the album for Steve:
— The Stunning (@TheStunningBand) October 31, 2020
“I saw that Tweet, and I thought, ‘Wow – he’s really hit the nail on the head there’,” Steve says. “People have said to me that the album was the soundtrack to their teenage and college years.
"It was a really good time," he continues. "People were proud to follow their own Irish bands – like ourselves, Something Happens, Hothouse Flowers, A House and The Fat Lady Sings. Radio was different as well. It was really just 2FM, and they played so much Irish music."
A major reason for the success of Paradise in the Picturehouse, Steve reckons, was The Stunning's relentless touring schedule.
"We gigged non-stop – sometimes seven nights a week – back in the late '80s and early '90s," he recalls. "We’d literally be playing all around the country. So when it came to the very first Féile in 1990, we were on at half past one in the afternoon – but thousands of kids came streaming in to see The Stunning, because we were their band. We'd played the local town hall in Nenagh, or the Temperance Hall in Loughrea, or some little nightclub down in Skibbereen. There was a huge loyalty to us over the years. And it’s still there – I still meet people who’ll tell stories, saying, ‘Oh, I remember when The Stunning came and played in Enniskerry!’ And sometimes I’ve forgotten all about these gigs!"
In an age in which bands' engagement with fans is largely restricted to social media, it's tough to find a modern equivalent to the ability The Stunning had, to connect with young people around the country.
"It meant a lot to them at the time," Steve resumes. "To have a band come to your town when you're that age was such a big deal. It was like, when I was growing up, going to see Horslips. Or when I was about 14, my father brought myself and Joe up to see Rory Gallagher, who I was really into, at the National Stadium in Dublin. We were young, but it left an indelible mark. I can still remember everything about the concert.
"So I can understand, then, when The Stunning arrived into a little town – it was a real thrill for those teenagers who were getting ready to go off to college. And then when they went off to college, and we started playing the colleges, we were their band."
And while today's biggest pop acts may have their own Twitter stans, Steve points out that "they will never know what it's like to get fan mail in the post, drenched in cheap perfume, with a lipstick kiss on the back."
"There nothing today that compares to that," he laughs. "The warm feeling when we'd get actual fan mail. We used to get so much of it, we had to open a post office box in the GPO on Eglinton Street in Galway to take it! Every week our manager would go up to the GPO, and come back with all the letters. We'd try to answer as many as we could. A 'follow' on social media just isn't the same as that."
Of course, as Steve observes when reflecting on those early years of The Stunning: "Everything is quite cyclical."
And it is.
"Myself and the lads have seen gigs come and go, and we’ve seen ourselves come in and out of favour and popularity," he remarks. "Even when we started out, there were campaigns against home taping. People saying, ‘Home Taping Is Killing Music!’ That was people badly recording their favourite albums onto a cassette, and sharing it with somebody else. The industry was so paranoid that this was going to destroy it.
"And it’s probably a lot worse now," he adds. "Because that whole income source from recorded material is just gone, basically. At least back then, even if they did copy the tape, somebody was still buying a copy in order to do that! Now it’s very different. It’s a lot harder for new artists."
Like plenty of other musicians, Steve has been vocal about his criticism of music streaming services.
"The streaming model is extremely unfair," he argues. "It’s something that needs to be looked into with legislation. Even for €9.99 a month, to have access to every artist under the sun, that’s just too little. It was the tech companies and the labels who all decided on the pricing model, and how much money was going to trickle down to the actual creatives – which was an absolute pittance."
These difficulties, of course, have been only worsened by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. He notes that the Minister for Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht, Catherine Martin, has been placed "in a difficult situation."
"She’s relatively new into the job, and to cover all of the arts, and to try to have an understanding of how it all works, is very challenging," he observes.
Steve points out that the pandemic has highlighted the distinction between the State-supported arts bodies and venues, and the non-funded live entertainment and events sector. It is something the Government are taking on board.
"The non-funded sector is all the promoters, the venue owners, and the artists – like ourselves, who often promote our own shows, and take a risk, hoping that tickets will sell," he argues. "That non-funded sector is the biggest employer in the music industry, and it also has the biggest turnover. What Catherine Martin has realised, and it's very positive, is that you can’t just give a few million euro to the funded sector, and say, 'That will fix the music industry'. Because it won't."
"So now, for the first time ever in the Irish music industry, the non-funded sector has had to stand up and say ‘This is who we are – you have to recognise us’," he continues. "The pandemic has forced the industry to form new groups, to represent them. Like EPIC and MEIA. There’s never been representation for these groups before – but now there are these bodies that can go to the Government, and say ‘Hang on a minute – you have to consider us’. And that’s a positive thing going forward. Now’s the time to rattle the cage."
The Stunning's 30th anniversary reissue and songbook of Paradise in the Picturehouse is available to order now from thestunning.net