- 27 Jun 19
21 years ago today, The Corrs went to No.1, after spending 30 weeks on the UK album chart. Talk On Corners, the Irish band's second studio album, went on to become best-selling album of 1998 in the UK. To celebrate, we're revisiting one of Niall Stokes' interviews with the fifth Corr, their manager John Hughes, who recounts the band's journey to success.
Here's the funny thing. Selling eight million albums doesn't make it easy. It's the kind of problem, undoubtedly, that most people in showbiz desperately want to be confronted with an album that takes off like a rocket and ends up going to number one in twenty different countries. But with success come demands: demands that are sometimes desperately draining, and are on occasion impossible to meet.
To begin with, inevitably, you're wanted in twenty different countries at the one time. If you could pin these things down properly in advance, you'd route a tour carefully through the world, to ensure that it took the minimum out of the participants, and produced the least number of headaches and nervous breakdowns. But when the record goes ballistic that's when the record company want you down in Australia. Or, if it's not going ballistic where you really need it to well, then, the pressure to get you to the scene of that catastrophe can be even greater.
It's where the old rock'n'roll joke about World Domination Plans originates. When a record by an act that wants to be seriously considered as players in the premier league is released, the record company, management and agents get working separately, and sometimes together, on a campaign that's designed to maximise the visibility of the act, and the revenue and sales that they'll generate over the eighteen month to two year cycle that major albums are expected to enjoy. If you want to be a big act, in the end it does come down to something as crude as that: it's called commerce.
There are all sorts of compromises that have to be made when putting that sort of campaign together. Record companies, for example, frequently have mixed feelings about live shows. It takes the fans' dollars out of the market, for one and besides, once the live monster has hit the road, an act can be much less flexible, and much harder to dragoon into the kind of promo that record companies tend to prefer: high visibility stuff that puts their charges on television, radio, and the front covers of magazines, thus reaching out to the great mass market of the unconverted.
And then there's what your agent, and the promoters that you've worked with successfully before, want. Generally, the demand from them is for the biggest gigs that can be mounted with a reasonable assurance of full houses, in the territories in which you are already successful. In effect, they have a tendency to want to take the money and run, and the carrot being dangled is an immediate, short-term, financial pay-off for the artist. But you might well be better off spending more time in the U.S., or Japan, or in some other territory where the potential benefits in the long term are far, far greater.
It's a problem, wrestling with dilemmas of that order, that nine out of ten rock'n'roll cats would die for. But when you gotta deal with them, hell, that's another story...
The Corrs have been at this game for a long time now. It may not feel like it, but the band have been on the road for going on eleven years. But, then, they always knew that it would be this way. When they started out, they had a ten-year plan. When the plot was being hatched, their manager to be, John Hughes, left Jim, Sharon, Caroline and Andrea under no illusion. This is what it would take. If they were in it for the long haul, he would be too. But it would involve a protracted and grinding campaign, that might at times involve the participants in all-out war. You had to be prepared to battle all the way, even through the toughest of times. But if you could do that, potentially the rewards would be enormous.
Hughes knew. He'd been part of an Irish electro pop duo called Minor Detail, with his brother Willie. They'd come out of left-field and scored a substantial deal with Polygram Records in the States. Their first album, an impressive eponymous collection of their own, original songs clambered into the top seventy-five albums on the Billboard charts. But it faded, and between the record company, and maybe the act themselves, the vision got blurred. They didn't have the plan that was necessary, that would have carried them through the tough times that followed. So near, and yet so far. John Hughes had learned enough to know, however, that, if he got a second shot, with a different act maybe, with the right act, it could be done.
The music would need to be magic, to be credible, and to be worth the level of effort that would have to go into it that's for sure. But beyond that, it would require determination, commitment and hard work from everyone involved, and over a sustained period. Were The Corrs up for it? Andrea was just fifteen at the time, and Caroline sixteen. But Jim had already been out on the road, and had developed a taste for it. And big sister Sharon was smart and focussed and ambitious. Besides, music was in their blood. Their parents were semi-pro musicians, and they'd all been playing since they were kids. Was there a more exciting prospect on the horizon? Hardly. They bought into the vision. They shared it. They were off.
The story has been told here before about the band's struggle to be taken seriously by the record industry and about the high-risk strategy that had to be adopted by them, in the search for a recording deal. Even when the deal was done, you could say that the battles were only starting.
The record company want one thing, you want another. How do you succeed in maintaining the integrity of what you're doing and satisfy the moguls at the same time? How do you say no without alienating people who've invested a shit-load of money in putting you on the map albeit on the basis that they thought they could colonise you? How do you get them to agree that you can put some of the Irish tunes that you believe are vital to the distinctiveness of the group on the record when, clearly, they just don't get it?
Success didn't come as quickly as the record company wanted, and it certainly didn't come in the way they anticipated. In a world where the instant fix has become the industry norm, the first Corrs album didn't achieve the expected lift-off in the States, despite the production involvement of the redoubtable hit-maker David Foster. But it did start to happen for them in places like Australia, Spain and, of course, Ireland. By the second album, Talk On Corners, it had begun to become obvious that the American way wasn't really going to be the right one for the band. Within its first few months on release, the album was doing well in lots of places but it was only with the series of re-mixes, orchestrated by Rob Dickens in Warners in the U.K., that stripped away a lot of the West Coast production sheen, that the record finally did go ballistic, turning The Corrs into superstars, in this part of the world at least.
They sold eight million copies of Talk On Corners. I guess you could say that they had arrived.
You have to keep one step ahead of yourself, all the time. If the band are huge, then surely they can afford to sit back and enjoy it? Watching John Hughes pace around his small office in the Factory complex in Dublin, taking calls on his mobile and plotting the course of the campaign that's designed to make In Blue one of the biggest records of all time, if everything goes just swimmingly, you know that's certainly not the way that they see it. In particular, with this record, there's America to conquer. They've done well there, and established a presence but sales are still lagging some way behind their stratospheric performance throughout Europe.
"We're under a different kind of pressure now," Hughes reflects. "The expectations may be a bit unreal. 'Hey, can you sell another eight million albums?' No one wants to face into that. It's like can you win the cup again? Can you win the fight again? Can you win the war again? But when you're forced to face it, then you have to accept the challenge. Now, we've got to outdo ourselves, just to stay where we were. And that is a pressure. And you have to try to keep that out of the creative process. That's what I think we did particularly well, this time around."
It's a point that Andrea has already made, in an interview in Hot Press. "It was very liberating," she said of the recording of In Blue, "no quests for hits, or that kind of ludicrous stuff that bands have to deal with these days. Ours was a haven without that. It was just music-making." But that kind of independence isn't easily won and John Hughes knows it better than most. He's had to do the fighting, along the way, to achieve it.
"Each time The Corrs succeeded, it was with their own songs," he reflects. "The songs that brought them to the fore globally were ones like 'Radio' and 'Runaway' and all the co-writes, and all the other productions didn't. That was the ironic thing. And so this time, the band had more control over what happened. They were freer to do what they wanted. The Americans said, 'go write a record you have our blessing. Tell us where you want to do it, tell us how you want to do it'. Which is what we did."
Not that it was easy. John Hughes smiles ruefully. "It was blood, sweat and tears," he confesses. "It was very hard going. It always is."
In this case, the toughest part was totally outside anyone's control. Half way through the recording of In Blue, tragedy struck, with the sudden death of Jean Corr. It was a context in which the unique nature of the group was starkly and painfully underlined, with all four members losing a parent in one cruel twist of fate. Anyone who has been through that kind of pain knows the depth of the impact that it can have, especially when there's a particularly close bond between parents and children, as there always has been in the Corrs family.
"You can't go on but you go on. It's all you can do. "The album was half done when that happened," guitarist Anto Drennan, who's one of the semi-permanent side-men with the group, recalls. "I think her illness affected them throughout, because their emotions were definitely more sensitised while she was sick. And 'No More Cry' was a direct result of that. But it was very difficult for them."
No matter who you talk to in the camp, they agree on one thing that Jean's death brought the four Corrs together. "It was different afterwards," Keith Duffy, bass-player, observes. "They were actually closer. You could see that they were working with each other more sympathetically, that they were on the one wavelength."
Talking to the individual band members, it's clear that the wounds that resulted from what is one of the most devastating experiences that anyone can have to live through, are still raw. It's a very emotional subject, for Andrea in particular, and for Sharon, who talks candidly about the fact that they all have bad days and that they need to support one another through them. Caroline, who's probably the most happy-go-lucky one, acknowledges that even a year on, she still hasn't really come to terms with it.
John Hughes shakes his head, recalling the sheer blackness of it. Those were dark days, and all anyone could do was battle their way through them as stocially as was in them to. Now, it's possible to begin to look at the effects of the trauma, free perhaps of the initial overwhelming sadness. "I think that you can see, on the record, that they had matured a great deal," John Hughes says. "In different ways. They had gone from being a baby band, to being a big band. They had been around the world a couple of times. And they'd been through the wringer. And most of those experiences were coming out in the lyrics, or in the chord structures. They had grown up and changed, and they were taking that on board in a very positive way."
They had grown up and changed. Some of what had happened to them was harrowing and painful, turning any sense that they might be living a charmed life entirely on its head. And the rest? Well, they had moved from naive youth to relative experience, the success that they were achieving along the way steeling them, individually and as a group, with a burgeoning sense of self-confidence.
In a musical vein, in part at least, the move was away from the tyranny of the search for the hit single. In the early stages of recording, without an outside producer breathing down their necks, and running the show themselves, this was an impulse they could follow, as far as it took them.
"They have matured," Anto Drennan adds. "They know more what they want in their own lives, so they express it more openly now than they might have before. They're more in control of their own destiny, musically as well. The first couple of albums were much more about just being a pop group whereas, this time, they were thinking about tracks that are actually album tracks. So they've got some songs on the album where there's no pressure on it to be a hit single, tracks for someone who buys the album to get to like in a much deeper way. With too many albums now, every track has to be a potential single."
Within the group collective, there's no shortage of the skills that are required to fashion great records. In a sense, the fact that there are three beautiful women in the group may have obscured that element for a lot of people.
"That's the big thing about The Corrs, the musician part of it," Keith Duffy argues. "When you talk to other musicians in England or America about them, nearly everyone comes back to how good The Corrs are as musicians. Jim is amazing on the piano. He can play anything. And a lot of people don't realise that all the girls can play piano as well. They're all very talented, but they work hard as well. Which is why Caroline could take up the drums so late. She's such a well-rounded musician. She's got amazing timing. All she has to do is listen to stuff, and she can play it. They're all brilliant at that."
"They're able to pick up something and play it really quickly," Anto Drennan agrees. "They seem almost to have a photographic memory, to be able to learn things that someone else might struggle a lot longer to master. It's the same with harmonies. They're so tight. Sometimes when they're messing around, people will go 'what?' because they think it's on tape. There's that weird family thing, because they're thinking in exactly the same way."
The group themselves acknowledge the positive influence John Hughes has had in this regard. As a musician himself, he knows a good song better than almost any other manager in the business. "He's always encouraging," Sharon says. "He'll advise us on the set list, what to put in and what to leave out. And if you've written a song, everyone is always very vulnerable when they're bringing it to the group for the first time. But he's always very good in that situation, not just in giving you confidence, but in offering advice and suggestions as well. He'll know if the song should be cut down from ten minutes to three (laughs)."
Given which, it makes more sense to talk about John Hughes as the fifth Corr as Sharon, and the rest of the group do than it did even with the legendary Brian Epstein in the context of The Beatles. Much more than a manager, he's an absolutely integral part of the group's success. He's a creative force, in the best and fullest meaning of the phrase, and he has found a platform for expressing that within the collective.
Analysing the success that they've achieved to date, Hughes himself prefers to put the emphasis on the qualities that the four Corrs themselves bring to the party. In diametric contradiction to the old Kitkat ad, there's the fact that they can play like demons, and that they look positively marvellous. But there's more to it than that too.
"We have a motto," he says, "and it's this: if we believe our own propaganda, then we're doomed. And I think that's what people do fall into, a kind of 'I must be great because I sold all those records' syndrome. That kind of thing is to be avoided like the plague."
The world is over-populated with asshole rock stars, with an inflated sense of their own importance. Another limo full of them, we can do without which is why dealing with The Corrs is like a breath of fresh air.
"You're not dealing with people who want to be peacocks," John Hughes reflects. "In that sense, they haven't changed a bit from the teenagers I was dealing with in Dundalk. No one is saying that there's a halo around the band. All human life is there. It's full of human frailties, that exist in inter-personal relationships, energy levels, creative levels. And there've been hard times. It's very difficult for anybody to lose their mother. But, no matter what, with The Corrs, there's a basic straightforwardness that's real. You can't manufacture it. They're good people. That's a big asset in this industry."
It helps if there's a core of decency about the way in which the operation is run, and about the way in which the band themselves carry their success. But while it's good to be unaffected in the areas that count, and to be pleasant and accommodating rather than arrogant and unhelpful, sometimes it gets hard. It may come with the turf that there's a level of intrusiveness in the way that a band like The Corrs are treated in the media but there's an awful lot of twisted stuff that makes its way into print that never should see the light of day.
The band are guarded on this. Andrea will talk about it, obviously taken aback at the sheer, breathless neck that's required to simply fabricate some of the stuff that's written about her. But she doesn't want to get hung up on it. There's another arena in which the worst of what's been put in print can be dealt with.
John Hughes, meanwhile, is diplomatic. "To open up papers and to read a full page article and to be able to say with hand on heart that every bit of it is fabricated and yet it is in a national newspaper that can get you a bit disheartened, if nothing else," he says. "On the serious side, a good example was the Millennium Dome there was a full page article in one newspaper on how The Corrs Snubbed The Queen . That was total lies, from beginning to end. None of that took place. I think there's still a battle going on about that. And on the trivial side, there's something like The Corrs Play At So-and-so's Wedding For #250,000 . Stuff about how the guests were shocked when the band came out to play their hits. Another total fabrication. One serious, one trite.
"Another one was Andrea I'd Give It All Up For Love . This was presented as an interview, and was billed as an 'exclusive'. Needless to say, the interview never took place. It was a total invention. That said, some of the papers are good to us."
Dealing with that kind of gratuitous misrepresentation is one of the hard parts of a manager s job. If it was the only one, it'd be easier to deal with but it comes in the middle of all the other things that keep you awake at night.
"Trying to second-guess where you should be next month, or the month after that takes a lot of thinking. And you can't do it. Should we be in Australia? And what are the chances we'll be needed in LA when we are in Australia? You just have to go with your gut feeling. It's just scheduling, but it can make so much difference if you get it wrong."
One of the better pieces of planning, at least from a fun point of view, was the decision to go out with The Rolling Stones, during the Talk On Corners campaign. "It might have sounded like a funny combination, The Corrs and The Stones," Anto Drennan remembers, "but it worked. The backing musicians in their band said that it was the first time that they had ever seen all the Stones go and have a look at the support act. One of our crew, Decky, was standing behind the stage and he saw Ronnie and Keith come up and Ronnie said 'Hey, Keith, look at the violin player'. And all Keith said was 'nice ass'. But they stayed for the whole gig."
Sharon went to bed early one night and ended up kicking herself that she missed out on one of rock's great treats: a night in Keith's infamous cage. Keith, Anto and Andrea were admitted to the menagerie.
"There was a PA system, drapes over the lights," Anto Drennan recounts. "The guys had guitars. And Keith still had his stage trousers on, his shirt off, and a guitar. And there was him and Ronnie, just chilling out, listening to blues. And then, in the middle of all this, Keith wanted to play everyone this video about the guy who won the lotto Waking Ned! And you think Rock'n'roll. His idea was to watch this for the crack. But everybody was talking, and there was so much music on that he couldn't hear the television. He started complaining that there was a limiter on it. So some guy comes in dressed in overalls but because it was the Rolling Stones, he was afraid to look at anyone. Anything could be going on, so he walked over to the television and wouldn't even turn his head! But the music was great, really great. That was our night with Keith."
"We were in the room till about six in the morning," Keith Duffy adds, "partying and that, and we thought 'OK, we're a bit knackered now', and went back to our rooms. But at 10 o'clock in the morning, the sounds were still coming out of Keith's room. We were wrecked, and these guys were still at it for hours later. Amazing."
The good times. They outweigh the bad, and the stressful by some distance. There's nothing you can do about the cruel influence of fate, and the hand it sometimes deals you but there are things that you can control. That's what the manager is for: to minimise the unhappy accidents. To maximise control, so that as far as it is humanly possible, the artist can legitimately feel that she or he or they are in control of their own destiny. There's a price to be paid, of course, for success at this level not least putting important aspects of your life on hold, in order to let the campaign go on till the mountain has been conquered, the summit attained.
Each of the Corrs acknowledges what a strange lifestyle it is. Andrea talks about feeling a bit abnormal already. Jim is concerned about whether it's possible to develop relationships that are true, and uncorrupted by the glare of the limelight in which the band constantly find themselves. Caroline confesses that you need to get away sometimes to a place where no one recognises you, where you can finally strip away the thing of being Caroline One Of The Corrs. But Sharon probably captures best the sense that they all share that the pressures and difficulties that are involved notwithstanding, above all, it is a privilege being a part of such a successful band.
"Is it worth it? Definitely," she says. "There's no gain without pain and, for me, the reason that I get so much satisfaction from what I do is because I work so hard. Had it come easy, I don't think I would have felt worthy of it."
And the fifth Corr? John Hughes is coiled and ready for the fray. He's prepared to go for it, come what may. How can The Corrs turn In Blue already hugely successful into one of the biggest-selling albums of all time? He's got to keep everyone motivated. The band, the record company, the agents, the promoters, the pluggers, the media himself. It comes naturally to him.
"It's a hard job," he muses. "Management is a hard job. Being in a band is a hard job. It's not an easy route. That's why there are very few who can do it, and fewer still who can sustain it. What's the hardest part of climbing Mount Everest? Is it the first stage? The second? The North face? None of it is easy. That's the kind of game we're in. None of it's easy.
"It's very gratifying, very fulfilling. It's a privileged position to be in. But it's not easy."