- 11 Jun 20
The singer talks about Ireland’s Greatest Hit, which looks at the era-defining success of White Ladder. Plus his reflections on hanging with Bowie at Glastonbury and meeting Marc Almond.
This Thursday night sees RTE One broadcast the documentary David Gray: Ireland’s Greatest Hit, which reflects on the phenomenal success enjoyed by the singer’s 1998 album White Ladder. Previously a struggling performer kept afloat by a small-but-devoted Irish audience, Gray’s fourth LP went truly supernova on these shores, eventually becoming the biggest selling album ever in Ireland.
In something of a musical fairytale, the success was replicated internationally, with White Ladder going 10 times platinum in the UK, and also selling by the truckload Stateside. Watching the film, it’s remarkable to observe how distant late ’90s Ireland seems: it was the moment the country got swept up in the Celtic Tiger.
“I granted a lot of access to my life,” says Gray of the documentary, speaking from his London home. “Watching the film back, it’s the first time I’ve been fully contextualised. My parents and my wife are in it and I thought it was nicely handled. Like White Ladder itself, it feels a bit rough around the edges, but real. I thought it was a wonderful watch, if I’m honest. It was interesting looking at the story in the context of Ireland’s ascent at that time.
“It was striking how grateful we all were, and how naïve – and how un-full-of-shit we were about the whole thing! Because it was fucking real: we had no plan and no budget. We just hoped people liked what we’d done, and we had this wonderful thing happen. We poured so much into it, but when the success carries on, you get to the point where you start to lose sight of that wonderful feeling. You take it for granted a bit.”
As we shakily re-emerge from the Covid-19 lockdown, it’s hard not to feel a tad wistful about the euphoria in the film.
“It seems like a heady time to reflect on, even without the current pandemic,” nods Gray. “Politics wasn’t the populist, toxic substance that it’s become – but it does demonstrate what a breeding ground complacency is. Idiotic ideas of endless growth and wealth, and perpetual resources; it just shows you what the back side of that actually looks like, because we’re in it now.
“We had a financial crash which lead to a change in world politics, and now it’s every man for himself again. You can see a fucking second Hitler arising under these circumstances. Trump’s like the fucking devil and Boris Johnson’s not far behind him. It just shows you that complacency’s cousin is shit like we’ve got right now.”
Gray had originally planned special White Ladder anniversary shows in Ireland this year, but these have now been pushed back to 2021. The singer acknowledges that, when they do eventually happen, the gigs will have an exceptionally powerful emotional charge.
“It’s gonna feel so special,” he enthuses. “It will feel such a privilege, we won’t have to consider all these conundrums, like ‘Is this commercial?’ No, we’ll celebrate something we fucking did. That’s gonna feel quite enough on its own, I think it’ll be magnificent. It’s torture not quite knowing when we can look forward to it; we’ve planned it for next year, but if the virus comes back in the autumn, we can fucking kiss that goodbye. We’ve all got a plan, but it’s impossible to fully believe in it just yet.”
One of the most triumphant moments in the film comes with Gray’s performance at Glastonbury in 2000. Originally booked for a smaller slot, he was promoted to the Main Stage, where he played on the same day as David Bowie, who delivered a legendary headlining show. As detailed in the documentary, Gray ended up hanging with the Dame backstage after his Dad approached him for a chat.
Was Gray also side-stage for the iconic performance?
“We weren’t if I’m honest,” he rues. “We didn’t have permission, but we were right by the stage and we listened as he did ‘Wild Is The Wind’. That’s one of my favourite Bowie songs. I mean, starting with that song was an immaculate concept. When you’ve got the ghost of Nina Simone in a song, like that one does, it’s incredibly powerful. Backstage beforehand, he showed me the setlist. I just went, ‘David, ‘Wild Is The Wind’ man – I fucking LOVE that song. (Laughs) Like, he was just looking for a gentle thumbs up!
“We were all wrecked and having the maddest day that ever happened to anybody. We’d just got to number five on the charts, we were playing the Main Stage – and my dad was there, and he was dying of cancer. Then my wife and sister were present, and family and friends, like Donal Dineen. The record company were there… people came from all over the country, there was about 30 of us and it was like a scrum. We caned the rider and we were absolutely blasted.
“It was just the golden haze of an untouchable moment. We let all the Kevlar body armour fall away – it wasn’t going to be necessary for a couple of years. Something wonderful was happening and all we had to do was let it happen.”
Another notable moment comes with the contribution of Soft Cell’s Marc Almond. On White Ladder, Gray covered the band’s immortal ‘Say Hello Wave Goodbye’, from one of the greatest ’80s albums, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret. Almond reflects on how Gray’s version took the song to a whole new audience.
“I had the opportunity to meet with Marc on film,” explains Gray. “That’s what Donal Scannell wanted me to do. I was nervous because I had no idea what he was going to be like, and what his take on my version of the song would be. Rather than meet on camera, I chose to meet him afterwards. We met for a coffee in town and he was just the loveliest guy, no bullshit at all. We had a wonderful chat; we were there for hours and I asked him all kinds of questions.
“I was just saying to him, it’s amazing the difference a song can make. When you’ve made one, you just don’t know what’s going to happen. Soft Cell’s ‘Tainted Love’ was the biggest selling single in the world in 1981. They had the opportunity to put one of their own songs as the b-side, and if they’d done so, they’d have made millions of pounds. But they were so young and naïve, they chose to put ‘Where Did Our Love Go’. They didn’t understand publishing, so they didn’t make a penny on any of those songs.
“But I was saying, you made this other song, and I did a cover that went on to sell seven or eight million copies. I actually wrote him a letter before the film, saying how much I loved Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret: it was the first electronic album that really spoke to me. And I was just saying how amazing it was what happened with that song – who would have thought that it would tie our two lives together?”
David Gray: Ireland’s Greatest Hit is on RTE One this Thursday at 10.15pm.