- 19 Mar 18
Lar was "the epitome of cool" say his bandmates...
The Blades have confirmed tonight that one of their founder members, Laurence Cleary, has passed away in Japan where he lived with his wife, Tina.
Formed in 1977 by Lar, his brother Paul and Pat Larkin, the Dublin outfit famously played a six-week residency with U2 in The Baggot Inn, and amassed a huge Irish following with their razor-sharp Modish tunes.
Their 1985 album, The Last Man In Europe, ranks as one of the all-time great Irish debuts and is being played in HP Towers now as we remember Laurence's contribution to a band whose legacy endures to this day.
Here's the love letter Hot Press' Neil McCormick wrote to The Blades way back in 1981:
The Blades: Just another three piece pop group from Ireland?
I fell in love with The Blades two years ago, when I saw them supporting U2 in a crowded Baggot Inn. Three young men, staring awkwardly at their feet until they started to play, their songs imbuing them with the confidence to let them cast furtive glances at the audience. Our eyes met across that crowded room and I knew things would never be quite the same again…Oh, but those songs…'Let's Go Down To The Dance!' Let’s Go!
The Blades dance simple three-piece pop steps, for two or two hundred. Around and around they've whirled these last two years, getting better and better until you think they're going to explode all over you. In many ways they are the Southern Irish counterparts of the North's Pure Pop scene, but there are major differences that stem from very separate origins and growth.
The Undertones, Moondogs, Protex, Rudi, The Nerves and Co. grew out of hostile territory and quickly found a sympathetic eye and ear in the British music media, but The Blades have benefitted from no such exposure, and despite the release of two singles (emphasis on the word superb), have yet to gain any attention from those areas where other men’s money is always greener.
But there is more! The Northern Irish bands are linked by an umbilical cord of their unfortunate heritage, they comprise a scene. The pop music they create is noisy, exuberant, youthful, vital, edgy: it rebels against the circumstances of its birth and declares that the time is right for dancing in the streets. The Blades, however, are an only child, they have fashioned their music alone in a Ringsend bedroom, developing muscles they never knew existed. The Blades are polite, they don’t yell and jump about, they stand still and play hard little songs with soft centres. The audience supply all the yelling and jumping about that is required.
Oh, but those songs. (I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again.) Those songs! They run through an alphabet of pop (A to Z with two P's), and all the melodic changes, the slight shifts in voice, guitar, bass, each sharp spare beat, the blended key changes hit you where it hurts, leave you gently reeling. The Blades' traditionally structured songwriting genre is severely limiting, but within, they aim only at perfection, the gentle ache of teenagers in love. When bassist, songwriter and lead voice Paul Cleary lets his soft, Americanised, note-perfect voice swoop in on a chorus you want to melt, "Cha-ange your mi-nd, cha-ange your mi-ind"…I wish I could hum it to you. Paul knows how to sing with understated passion where other vocalists yell and cackle in a melodrama of false emotion.
But there’s more! You can take the one you love along to see them and you can dance (a variety of tempos: slow and fast!) and you can sing along and pretend you know all the words, and… And… and… and… and.
Paul Cleary is both amiable and intelligent, but he is suspicious of interviews and blanches when I take the tape recorder out of my pocket (it doesn’t bite but it has been known to stab people in the back). He acknowledges, however, that this attitude isn’t going to make life easy and is responsible in many ways for the almost total lack of attention they've faced outside Ireland.
"I suppose Energy (the record company who released The Blades' two singles) tried to get us press, but certainly a lot of them didn't want to know 'cause there was no angle or hype, I suppose. What are we gonna say to them, you know? Especially since they're probably only gonna see one gig or whatever, not sort of knowing the background, it's hard to explain to them. I can see their point –'So what, another fuckin' three-piece pop band from Ireland? Give us a Spandau Ballet or an Adam and the Ants!' It’s probably our fault, but I don’t want to do it like that, bulshitting in interviews, you know?
I'd like to think we're the type of group you wouldn't have to read any interviews with. You could just sort of go to a Blades gig and understand what we are about, without having to read two pages of someone contemplating the meaning of life."
So what's the meaning of life, Paul? "Ha! You know a lot of groups do better interviews than they do gigs. They're really very good at it, y'know, expertise …" (laughs)
Paul comes from working-class Dublin and is suspicious of middle-class British music, of art, intellectualism, fashion. He may be short-changing himself by his lack of understanding of other people and their music, but that is very much a part of why he is such a natural songwriter. He believes in honesty, and to him pop music represents that honesty – its simple traditions providing a language implicitly understood by all.
So what is pop music? Such a stupid question but have you got an answer? Louis Armstrong said of jazz – "If you’ve got to ask what it is, you'll never know." You can apply it to pop – but you can apply it to science fiction, rock 'n' roll, avante-garde, species of fish, and still no one is any the wiser.
So what is pop music? Paul? "To me, really, pop music is just no-bullshit music. I suppose a lot of country I'd class as pop, or the likes of The Four Tops or Diana Ross… to me that's pop. Other people might call it soul, but it’s pop to me: just good melodies and all that, you know, it could be anyone from the Distractions to the Beatles…"
The Blades play pop that stems from the sixties, but as Paul say; "I wasn’t buying records in the sixties… I was only born in 1960!", but he grew up with a radio and that was enough, he learned the guidelines of a new folk music that fired little arrows straight to the heart, so that when he formed a group in post-punk 1978, he was able to write 10 songs straight off. Now he has '50 or 60', but they still play two or three from that batch. To what do you attribute your formidable output, Paul? "The ones we threw out, it was generally just the arrangements were lackin' a bit, and I'd rather write a completely new one than rearrange one we were playing."
The Blades are the sort of group you wish the world would lay out like a red carpet for, built on blind belief and real emotion, they make you smile, they make you care, fuss and worry over them. But the world never did know how to behave itself properly.
Although their new single 'Ghost Of A Chance' is undoubtedly a perfect three minutes in the life of anyone who has a heart, and has yet to be released in Britain, they have been dropped by Energy Records. Paul attributes this to a lack of understanding, stemming from when they first signed: "They didn’t give us any explanations, there was just no communication between us from day one. I suppose the record industry recession was the main reason, just tightening up their belts. They probably wanted to make a fast killing and we’re not a group who’s gonna do that for them, get the cover of The Face or whatever, you know…"
And while they are off-balance, we might as well pull the rug from under them: drummer Pat Larkin has decided to leave, making The Blades a two-piece pop band (doesn’t have quite the same ring to it). "That’s not Pat’s fault, he gave us fair warning. Something like this happened seven or eight months ago. It’s not the band, he still loves The Blades as such, it’s just what you have to do to get up on stage, the shit you have to go through, you know: the record company, the promoters, anybody who's indirectly involved – the general music business – that he just doesn’t like. And he doesn’t even like travelling, which is not a very good way to be if you’re in a group."
The remaining Blades, Paul and his (secret) brother guitarist Larry Schreiber look on these events as delays to be cleared with time, rather than major set-backs. There is a possibility that they might record with their publishing company Albion, or sign to another label – or failing either they will form their own label: "It’s just gettin' the money, but we'd raise it someway, you know?" With regard to a new drummer the only problem envisaged would be to find someone who will fit in as a personality, though Paul does not relish the thought of auditions. "Auditions are terrible, they're terrible on the actual person doing the audition and they're terrible on you as well. Like, we done auditions for another guitarist about six months ago, we just thought we'd get another guitarist in and see what happens, you know, but you wouldn't believe who turned up," he laughs, "all these ‘heads down and let’s go’ boys. We played into their hands in a way, just to see what’d happen, 'cause we'd hoped that even if they didn't have an intimate knowledge of the history of The Blades, they'd at least have some idea who we were. So when each one of them came in we said 'Right, bang us out a twelve-bar there: Johnnny B. Goode', just to see how it’d affect them… whoever really got into it was fucked, you know, and they were all gettin' into it (much laughter). By rights they should've said 'What are you playing that crap for', but they were all whippin' it out... it was terrible to see... leave your name and address in the waste-paper basket…"
While everything is upside-down, I may as well temper my natural exuberance for all things Blades with my critic's hat. If the Blades can be faulted (and who's picking) it is in a tendency for the songs, each individual gem, to become indistinguishable, as a result of the sparse sound of the group. It's a criticism I made the first time I saw them, but each time I come away thinking perhaps I've overrated them, Larry comes up with a new chord, a new sound, an improved fluency and I think: now, now they deserve all the praise!
But although their continual self-improvement would put any body-builder to shame, the samey-ness of the songs over an hour-long gig remains apparent.
It's a criticism that Paul Cleary claims not to agree with, but at the same time he admits to thinking of adding a keyboards person or guitarist to the group, the period of enforced change providing an ideal time for the recruitment of a new Blade. His only worry, it seems, is a fear that it would complicate the essentially simple nature of the Blades' pop. "If you write a simple song, you'd have to write a piece for them, you know…'you do a bit of lead, you play a keyboard riff'. That’s where it can be damaging, especially if it gets really big: 'OK brass section, do your thing! Cue the French horns…'"
"I'd like to use brass recording on three or four songs – the only thing is when you're playing live, people'd start going: 'Where's the fuckin' brass?'"
Uncertain whether to expand or not, The Blades move on, getting better, working hard, being honest. Paul is a songwriter, a wonderful songwriter who understands the twists and turns of teenage thinking, who writes wonderful songs, who wants to write better ones. He offers to write out some of his lyrics for me:"I don't mean to dissect them, but, I'd just like someone else's opinion on them, you know… even if you didn't write about them, you could just tell me yourself."
And so? The Blades are leaving home to take their dance to England as they have sorted out their line-up. "You'd kill yourself in Ireland playing to nobody." Paul says. They're prepared to dive from the low diving-board of being local into the vast pool of obscurity, just to get chance to climb out again by scaling the diving board. "I wouldn't go over despondently. We're gonna play well and whoever comes to see us, I'm not saying they'll all enjoy us, they'll see a good band… where we won't do well is in the press. The NME or Face or whatever."
The Blades won't take any easy option refuse to cloud their music with fashion or ulterior motives because, "it wouldn't be real anymore. I'd rather disappear than become successful by dressing in clothes that weren't right for me."
The Blades: On Good Evening Ulster, said 'they really do have a ghost of a chance' but she said it so enthusiastically that you knew heart was in the right place (on the sleeve!).
The Blades: Just another three-piece pop group from Ireland? Not just!
RIP Laurence Cleary https://t.co/ZV1nsQsfkh
— david mclarnon (@davytreatment) March 19, 2018
Devastated to hear of the death in Japan at the weekend of Lar Cleary, founder of the greatest Dublin band, The Blades. He would reel off his bus tickets (they'd conductors in those days) before clocking off at Ringsend Rd and heading up to the Magnet to play. Great memories, RIP
— Ger Siggins (@Siggo) March 19, 2018