- 20 Feb 20
Following the recent release of Beautiful Affair: A Stockton's Wing Retrospective, the trad legends' Mike Hanrahan discusses their enduring legacy, supporting Prince, and their kinship with Christy Moore and The Dubliners.
Partway through our tete-a-tete, in the salubrious surroundings of the Royal Marine Hotel in Dun Laoghaire, Mike Hanrahan admits that only once has he been tempted to depart from his normally stoical acceptance of life’s twists and turns.
“I don’t think of things that might have been,” he shrugs. “I just move on. Although there is one exception; I’d love to have been on Top of The Pops with the band. We nearly made it, actually. The single ‘Beautiful Affair’ crept into the lower reaches of the UK charts and the record company told us to have our suits ready, because if it went up the following week, we’d be on Top of The Pops. Sadly, the single went down, but the very idea of Stockton’s Wing on Top Of The Pops still brings a smile to my face.”
Hanrahan was Stockton’s Wing main provider of original songs, including such out-and-out pop hits as ‘Beautiful Affair’ and ‘Walk Away’. But he brings the same philosophy to songwriting as he does to the rest of his life.
“You soon learn that not every song works,” he notes. “Sometimes I’ve set off with an idea convinced I can turn it into a serious winner. But even if I ended up back where I started, I always enjoyed going on that journey. You also have to have the inner strength to deal with someone you trust telling you that the song’s awful, because maybe it is! I learned that the hard way when I’d bring what I thought were works of genius to the lads in Stockton’s Wing, who would never be shy about setting me straight on that one.
“But the great thing about music is that the journey’s always worth it, even if it doesn’t take you very far. It’s the same with the band. All the disappointments and hardships pale into nothingness compared to the joys of that journey. Stockton’s Wing was a great band, and we had wonderful times touring all over Ireland and the world. We played some great music and made some terrific friends.”
The new compilation Beautiful Affair: A Stockton’s Wing Retrospective is a timely reminder of that journey, featuring over 40 remastered tracks. Hanrahan worked with Corkman Stan Roche, to put the tracklist together. There’s over a dozen previously unavailable on CD, plus duets with The Dubliners and Christy Moore, and brand new live recordings from the latest incarnation of the band. It must be tricky choosing, with such a back catalogue to work with.
“It was great to have an objective view too,” Mike reflects. “Leaving fine tracks out was the hardest part, but it was comforting also to realise how much great material there is that we couldn’t fit in. It was a delight for me to revisit those albums and see how each of them represented a different phase of the band’s growth. The line-up was always transient, so there was a constant stream of fresh thinking coming into the band. I reckon we had at least 30 musicians over the years – people like drummer Fran Breen, John Walsh on bass, Anto Drennan, the list goes on.”
The sleeve credits do indeed read like a who’s who of Irish music, dotted with names like Hanrahan’s brother Kieran (who has since become a successful radio presenter); Steve Cooney; Mel Mercier; Noel Eccles; Tommy Hayes; and Greg Boland.
Stockton’s Wing’s open-mindedness, raw musical talent and their versatility meant they could switch seamlessly from soft, reflective ballads to full monty diddley-eye. There’s even a fun funk-folk element to ‘Skidoo’, and ‘Hey Marsha’ wouldn’t require much tweaking to find a home in a big-haired poodle rock outfit, its references to Gandhi and Martin Luther King notwithstanding. Hanrahan wrote that song with John Walsh for the album Full Flight.
“We deliberately wanted to push it into an area slightly beyond the band’s normal reach,” he recalls. “People underestimate how open to other types of music most trad players are, and Stockton’s Wing were on to that from day one. That album also has ‘Over The Moors’, which most people would recognise as the theme tune for Joe Duffy’s radio programme. In fact, at that stage of my career as a songwriter, I was always conscious of the importance of radio play, so you’d make sure that an album had a couple of catchy, radio-friendly tunes that weren’t too long.”
Over the years, Stockton’s Wing worked with top producers of the calibre of Bill Whelan, Shawn Davey, PJ Curtis, Andrew Boland and Steve Cooney. As Hanrahan emphasises, “Each of them brought something unique to us. I did some production work myself, so I know you have to have that autonomy in sound, and that’s what I’d expect from any producer. We’d have the raw material and they’d add to that. Of course, Stockton’s Wing were always open to ideas. That’s the key to it. You have to trust the producer to take the music a bit further.
“I remember PJ Curtis used to quote a famous Nashville producer who said, ‘If you’ve got nothing to say, say nothin’’. Recording with Bill Whelan was always terrific fun. We avoided working with producers we thought might be too dictatorial, who might want to make it their album rather than the one the band wanted.”
Hanrahan warns that, in this regard, young bands are particularly susceptible to having their albums hijacked by a producer, ending up with work that doesn’t fulfill their own musical ambitions.
“Still, bands can always benefit from the right kind of outside perspective,” he says. “They often send you off with a bit of fresh thinking. In a sense, every band has to find the way that works best for them. Then again, it was the nature of Stockton’s Wing to be always on the lookout for challenging pieces. We always had a sense of adventure about new ideas. My brother Kieran presents Ceili House on RTÉ, but I’ve seen him with a bandana on stage rockin’ it up with a banjo. We’d pay attention to the staging, the lighting, flares, smoke bombs, the lot. It was all part of the creative journey.”
Stockton’s Wing inspired a generation of Irish musicians to explore and experiment. Pushed to name an album that best represents the band, Mike plumps for Light In The Western Sky.
“We were young. It was only our third album and it had a lot of original music on it. PJ Curtis produced it, with the engineer Brian Masterson. There was magic in the air from start to finish.”
Over the decades, the group forged friendships and musical partnerships with many of Irish music’s most renowned acts.
“There’s so much mutual respect,” says Mike. “I’m not only a big fan of Christy Moore as a musician, but as a decent gentleman too. We toured Australia with Planxty and Christy. But at the start of Stockton’s Wing, The Dubliners took us on and sort of looked after us. We were in awe of them and I think they saw us as kids who needed a bit of minding. Kieran’s party piece was an intricate banjo piece called ‘Barney’s Mozart’, obviously a nod to Barney McKenna. I also loved the sound of Ronnie Drew’s voice and was honoured to work with him later. He also sang on my own song ‘We Had It All’.”
A DANGEROUS THING
Hanrahan reckons that the band were at their peak around the Self-Aid gig in 1986. “Then in 1988, we brought out the Celtic Roots Revival album and it didn’t really sell. That was when things began to slacken off. In 1988 we played before Michael Jackson at both his concerts in Pairc Ui Chaoimh in Cork. And the following year, we made a guest appearance with Sammy Davis Junior in Lansdowne Road as part of his world tour with Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli. We did the Prince gig in Cork in 1990. These were massive highlights, but we didn’t realise our time was nearly up.
“In 1992, we recorded The Crooked Rose album with producer Bill Whelan. It’s arguably our creative peak, but it had very little impact at all. That marked the end for me. Travelling around doing the gigs had become drudgery, and you’re on stage when you don’t want to be there. Someone said recently that you couldn’t pigeonhole the band because we dabbled in pop, rock and trad in a very inventive way, and that might not have helped. I don’t think there was a band like us, either before or since. We never conformed. We could do a gig in Prince’s club in Philadelphia, then do a gig for the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and then do a dinner dance back home. It’d be the same set more or less each night. We had three all-Ireland champion players in Maurice Lennon, Paul Roche and Kieran. Tommy Hayes on the bodhran was a genius. But it probably had to end sometime, and it did until the reunion gigs came along.”
I bring up the issue of alcohol which has taken its toll on Irish musicians, not least among the folk and trad communities.
“Alcohol is a dangerous thing, not least on the long tours away from home,” Mike nods. “You fool yourself into thinking you can man up and do it every night, but you can’t, and at some point your body reacts. I remember one earth-shattering experience when I just couldn’t play the guitar on stage during a gig as part of a really long German tour. The nerves in my hands were gone. That was the result of too much drink at too many late-night parties after every gig.”
After the Wing went into cold storage, Hanrahan enjoyed a successful period as a solo artist. “I regard myself as blessed in that I’ve always had a project or two on the go with such wonderful artists as Maura O’Connell, the late Ronnie Drew, Eleanor Shanley and Leslie Dowdall. It helps that I admire all of them both as artists and as people. I also took up a subsidiary life as a cook for about 10 years and published the book Beautiful Affair, which not only covers my personal and musical lives, but has a good sprinkling of my favourite recipes. I love cooking, though the lure of music was too much for me.”
And what are the future plans for Stockton’s Wing?
“The recent gigs we’ve done have gone so well and were so much fun, it would be crazy not to do more of them,” says Mike. “We actually have a live album recorded by the current line-up. Who knows, there might even be a few albums in us yet. I’m just really excited about making music again.”
- Beautiful Affair: A Stockton's Wing Retrospective is out now on Tara Music.