- 19 Dec 22
Tickets for The Stunning's Drogheda gig at the Crescent Concert Hall on Friday, 30th December are still available.
The Stunning, along with The Saw Doctors and The Waterboys, are, for my money, Galway music royalty – controversial when you consider the likes of Mary Coughlan, Adrian Crowley and Julie Feeney are of this parish, Dolores and Sean Keane are from down the road, as are Frankie Gavin and Sharon Shannon. Not to forget a raft of Galwegian underground heroes - The Disconauts, Toasted Heretic, The Deans and Jacob’s Ladder. And that’s before you track back to Seán Cannon or the mighty Shaskeen who play support tonight. And you can add to that a stack of new pretenders - We Banjo 3, NewDad, The Clockworks and Turnstiles. It also may be a tad contentious that none of this supposed royalty are actually from the city – but The Saw Doctors are from stone’s throw away Tuam, The Waterboys get in on Spiddal recorded Fishermen’s Blues alone and then you have The Stunning. True, the fact that they hail from Ennistymon, won’t please the good people of county Clare, be like seeing Seanie McMahon lining out at centre-back for the Tribesmen. But, for me, for many– The Stunning are a Galway band.
In 1986, The Stunning front man Steve Wall was mooching around Dublin, hanging out at the Underground on Dame St., chewing the same dirt as bands such as - Something Happens, Real Wild West, A House, The Subterraneans, The Golden Horde, The Swinging Swine and Blue in Heaven. With a view to forming a band of his own, Steve placed an ad in the good pages of Hot Press magazine and auditions were held in Aidan Walsh’s Temple Bar rehearsal studios, but it was to be in Galway where the band assembled Dirty Dozen style, where Steve had been a student for three years.
Donegal native, archaeology graduate and drummer Cormac Dunne had been in a band called New Testament with Steve Wall. He was in. Fellow Donegal man, Derek Murray ran a music shop in Galway, selling second hand records and instruments to put himself through college. Steve pretending to peruse record sleeves, listened to him sitting behind the counter, soloing to Johnny Guitar Watson records. He was in. Brother Joe Wall, bunking off art college, dossing across Europe was brought home from Switzerland to play bass. Steve was searching for a nouveau showband, a big band sound and so Jim Higgins on trumpet, Donal Duggan on sax and Paddy Schutte on trombone – labelled the Brass Monkeys as they were still Leaving Cert students – were recruited. Medical student and keyboard player, Ronan Kavanagh completed the eight-headed groove machine. It was quite the gumbo. On The Stunning website Steve breaks down the ingredients -
“Derek had become a renowned DJ and ran a successful club called the Soul Solution. He had a vast collection of soul and blues and reggae records and we started learning songs by the likes of Archie Bell and the Drells, Koko Taylor and Lee Dorsey. Then there were mine and Joe’s albums (some borrowed from our mother): Dionne Warwick, Martha and the Vandellas, Elvis Presley, John Lee Hooker, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Clash, The Smiths, The Doors, Joy Division, Johnny Cash, The Goons. From Cormac’s room you could hear the thumping of Iggy Pop, The Ramones, Eddie Cochrane and the feedback of the Jesus and Mary Chain. Jimmy was into The Police and Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. But his real love was for old traditional recordings; the more crackle and hiss on the cassette the better. He was now studying music in Cork University and playing the bodhrán was to become his speciality. I could go on but you get the idea. We were all music mad and it was all we cared about.”
Their first gig was at the Hilltop Hotel in Salthill, about fifty knocked in to hear the eight headed beast play blues, country, soul, rock – the word got out – the following week it was sold out. Then came those first four singles – ‘Got to Get Away’, ‘Half Past Two’, ‘Romeo’s on Fire’ and ‘Brewing up a Storm’ –mighty additions to the Irish canon and all so very different from one another. Across halls, shebeens, flatbeds, clubs and pubs they took the show, seven nights a week, across Ireland. Their debut album, Paradise in the Picturehouse, in the summer of 1990, went in at Number 1 in in the Irish charts, the only debut album that ever achieved that feat and it remained stuck there for five weeks. And they did it the hard way – no label (they self-funded the record and licensed the album to Solid Records), no major promotion, sod all radio play, sod all press – that’s how hard-working they were, that’s how good they were.
Paradise in the Picturehouse, is for many, the sound of that heady, transformative summer of 1990. Ireland was changing, we were on the cusp of something, that would later be termed the Celtic Tiger. No longer was almost everyone checking out of Ireland after they finished the Leaving Certificate; many were enrolling into RTC’s (Regional Technical Colleges) across Ireland. At the start of summer, the entire country caught Italia ’90 fever, Jackie’s Army invading Cagliari, Palermo and Genoa as Ireland marched into the Quarter-Finals of the World Cup at the first time of asking. Kevin Sheedy’s wonderful equaliser against England, David O’Leary’s and Packie Bonner’s heroics in Genoa, resulted in a half a million wild fans on the delirious streets of Dublin paying homage to an astonished Jack Charlton and his Ireland team, gazing down from atop a swamped open-top bus – all played out to the soundtrack of Larry Mullen produced ‘Put ‘Em Under Pressure’, which remained at number 1 for thirteen weeks!
That same crazy, impossible June, The Stunning were sound checking at the Bridge Hotel in Waterford, when they received a phone-call with the word that Paradise in the Picturehouse had hit Number 1. It was an apt place to hear tell of it, for The Stunning had tirelessly worked countless of those same ballrooms across the country, hoovering up a fanbase that never left them. To promote the record, the band played eighteen dates, which included - Midnight at the Olympia (twice!); the Boxing Club, Drogheda; The Harriers in Tullamore; two gigs in the one day – Limerick, Lark in the Park (remember them?) and The Friary in Nenagh; and then on 4 August sandwiched between The Entertainment Centre, Lahinch and the Powerhaus in London - Féile 90, Semple Stadium.
An innocuous enough handle - Féile ’90, Semple Stadium – one that belies the bedlam that occurred in Thurles at the First Trip to Tipp that August. Outside of Meatloaf, Big Country, Deacon Blue and Maria McKee, I believe the rest on the bill were Irish. And what a bill it was - Van Morrison, Christy Moore, Hothouse Flowers, The 4 Of Us, Something Happens, Moving Hearts, The Black Velvet Band, Mary Black, The Saw Doctors, An Emotional Fish and That Petrol Emotion. Crikey! For just 30-pound old money, you got to see the lot. Trundling down to Semple, more than a few had their Paradise in the Picturehouse cassette jammed in the car stereo, playing the sound of their summer. Féile fantastically was just one stage – you can imagine the delirium amongst their fans, as The Stunning, the best band in the best summer of their lives strolled on at midnight.
The following autumn, the band played 22 dates, two in London, the rest in Ireland, across - Scragg’s Alley in Carlow, The Parkway in Limerick, Sir Henry’s in Cork. UCD & TCD, Flamingo’s in Abbeyfeale, the Achill Head Hotel, the Hiland Lounge in Newmarket, the Lavey Inn in Cavan, the Westpark Hotel in Portumna, the River Rooms in Newcastle West, The Point and The Olympia in Dublin – to promote ‘Heads Are Gonna Roll’ – a single!
And on The Stunning machine marched for four more long, fine summers, gigging the proverbial arse out of the country, best captured on their live album Tightrope. They released a second record Once Around the World, re-recorded in 2018 as Twice Around the World at Grouse Lodge Recording Studios. In 1992, they supported Bob Dylan for six nights at the Hammersmith Apollo, a week later supporting the B-52’s across the UK. At Féile ’93, Bryan Adams went on before them. Féile ‘94 bookended that era of the band, sharing the bill with acts such as Crowded House, Primal Scream, House of Pain, The Prodigy, Elvis Costello, The Cranberries, Bjork, Cypress Hill, Blur, Aslan, Sack, Sharon Shannon, Bob Geldof and Kerbdog. Steve Wall thanked the fans for following them across lounge bars, pubs and halls for the past seven years, telling the crowd that the band were calling it a day, before they belted out a delirious ‘Brewing up a Storm’, an anthem to the good times, perhaps the best times. They played two emotionally charged farewell gigs at The Warwick, their spiritual home. And that was that, or that was almost that.
Over the years those cassette copies of Paradise at the Picturehouse were played out, chewed up, tangled up and so people started e-mailing the band asking where could they get a copy of it? People needed to hear it again, perhaps to relive those Elysian summers when Ireland was on the cusp of something else. And so, it was re-issued in 2003 on CD and the band re-formed to promote it, playing 18 sold out shows across Ireland, the record went to Number 2, only kept off the top spot, by not enough pressings! The band stayed together, and here we are Christmas week 2022, and they are playing in Leisureland, a stone’s throw from where it all began at The Hilltop Hotel all those years ago.
For old times’ sake, I sank a glass in O’Connell’s Bar and made my across Eyre Square towards Salthill on foot. Past the iconic Imperial Hotel, thinking of once resident, French writer, Antonin Artaud, screeching his lamentations into a primitive recording device, peeping out on a far different Galway, the neighbouring rooms thinking him the divil himself. Even those men of Aran who had put up with Synge could not bear him, a tad frightened as they were, they ran him back across Galway Bay. He must have thought us a cold, cruel people. He had come from Paris, with a gnarled cudgel; God knows where he dragged it up, but he believed it to be St. Patrick’s and he believed that he needed to return it to this land. Somehow, he ended up in Mountjoy. Some wit once observed we sent the French Beckett, they sent him back with the Nobel Prize, the French sent us Artaud, and we sent him back in a strait jacket. Over Wolfe Tone Bridge, passing Fisheries Tower, the Corrib underneath racing away from Connemara plunging into the pounding Atlantic. Through The Claddagh with Galway Bay shining by the dented moon. On the far bank, the frozen, ancient hills of Clare splice the sky, clints and furrows protecting the Burren’s secrets and what a beauty she is.
In audaciously named Leisureland, there hangs an aura of the vanished, yearned for 1990s. Hundreds of heads from those fine summers, swarm in from a Baltic December night. Man, they look happy – how many I wonder met their partners at Stunning gigs? How many fell in love to ‘Romeo’s on Fire’ or ‘She’s On My Mind’? The Stunning stroll onstage humbly, the quintet has aged remarkably well, thirty-five years on the clock since 1987, thirty-five years of creating nights such as these. Nights when the class of 1990, clutching cans of San Miguel, fall in love with their past selves again, discover the romance, the idealism, the lost meaning of it all. Steve Wall remarks on the brutally freezing night, they look colder than us, entrenched as they have been in the cold dressing rooms, far below in the bowels of the auditorium. You’d be warmer jumping into the pool.
Derek Murray, regal in Crombie and fingerless gloves kicks us into ‘Brighten Up My Life’ and this ice-cold swimming pool with attached barn-like hall immediately is transformed into a Ballroom of Romance, a sea of cobwebbed lights spotlighting dozens of happy campers singing along to ‘Half Past Two’, a song about beautiful students sauntering across Shop Street on sunny Saturday afternoons.
Steve calls out, “is there anyone from Inishbofin?’ and what sounds like a quarter of the audience shrieks in delight, affirming their residence on the island off the Connemara coast. He tells us that ‘Rusty Old River’ was written on The Long Walk across from The Claddagh before conducting us - a drunk, bizarre, beautiful choir in fine voice. Drummer, Cormac Dunne powers us along, smiling broadly underneath snug flat-cap on The Walls (a noughties incarnation of this fine band) track ‘The Bright and Shining Sun’– it’s an absolute rocker – the band playing musical chairs as Joe Wall and Derek Murray swap axes. ‘She’s On My Mind’ recalls slow sets in times of old, Joe invites us to do a round of the hall and chants of ‘Warwick! Warwick! Warwick!’ ring out. ‘Tightrope’ possesses a fantastic breakdown, the stand-out star of which is multi-instrumentalist Jim Higgins who attacks his bongos Bruce Lee Style, lending a voodoo hoodoo to proceedings. The brass section, a jocular and talented duo, hollering at him with delight.
Joe introduces ‘Everything That Rises’ with tales of Steve Wall been almost lost to the world of mechanical engineering, studying it for three years at Galway RTC, possessing innate bicycle repair ability and the taking apart of Mrs. Walls’ household appliances and the lesser skill of putting them back together again. It’s stuff like that - the vaporising of the boundary between band and audience that makes Stunning fans become fans for life and man, do they love them - people singing out, eyes closed, arms raised to the heavens. Swathed in red light, Steve dedicates ‘Heads Gonna Roll’ to ultimate Stunning super fan and incredible national hero Vicky Phelan, the Irish healthcare campaigner who sadly passed away last month. There is raw emotion in the crowd, applauding one of their own tribe, honouring her, never forgetting her.
Steve introduces the band to raucous hooping, thanks support band Shaskeen and their 52 years on the go, before launching into Latin scorched ‘Romeo’s on Fire’ – the crowd are starting to go ape, the barn now almost hot, the outside freeze banished – “Queen of heaven turn to me, tell the truth before I burn too much”, Steve croons. Dylan’s hit, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ follows, rolling over us, the two brothers, the epicentre of all this madness, jamming together, it is quite the moment, they, who have brought so much to the halls of Ireland, under a spotlight, in front of a wild Galway crowd. And then, The Stunning anthem – ‘Brewing up a Storm’, the anticipation of it, even within the song, is incredible. The crowd are in total abandon now, it allows it, but it never lasts long enough and always leaves you wanting more. Ah! what a Christmas gift this was, The Stunning rave on.