- 17 Jun 21
To celebrate what would have been his 64th birthday, we're revisiting a classic interview with Philip Chevron of The Pogues and The Radiators from Space. In the interview below, he talks to Eamonn McCann about his childhood, his love of Broadway musicals, the Horslips connection, the genesis of the Radiators and his fleeting career as a journalist.
Eamonn McCann: Looking back over your career, over the last ten or twelve years, on the surface, there doesn't seem much coherence to it.
Philip Chevron: I remember looking back at what I'd done and asking myself what linked it all together. It did seem erratic to say the least. But learned early that you have to do things intuitively, because nothing else works. On the rare occasions I haven't trusted my instincts I've been punished for it. Even so, there is a connection between it all, which is respect for songs. That's the root of it really, that I love songs.
People might still find it difficult to see the connections...
The music I was into earliest was theatre music, the music of Broadway shows. There was a theatricality about The Radiators, although maybe not overtly so. A few years ago I made a record of 'The Captains And The Kings', Brendan Behan's song from 'The Hostage'. It might be difficult to see 'The Captains And The Kings' as a theatre song per se, but nevertheless that's where it comes from. About six years ago I made my own record of Brecht-Weill songs, about which I have mixed feelings now. There is a link between it all. For example, what makes Shane MacGowan's songwriting as good as it is, is, partly - I don't say entirely - that he has respect for the tradition of the Irish ballad. He's carried on that tradition. It's something, that to a certain extent, I did with the Radiators, though I came at it from a slightly different angle.
When you say Broadway music, what are you talking about? Kern, Cole Porter, the Gershwins?
Yeah, but at that point I didn't know their names. It's just that from my earliest days I was attracted to that sort of music. It was tuneful. That's still a major consideration with me. And also it was theatrical.
How early were your 'earliest days'?
My first memory of any kind is of being brought to see Jimmy O'Dea in pantomime, at a matinee at The Gaiety. I'm very pleased to be able to say that I actually did see Jimmy O'Dea. He was a great comedian, entertainer, performer, although I was far too young to appreciate it at the time. But he had an incredible effect n me. It was 'Robinson Crusoe', with Agnes Bernelle as Crusoe. That's the first time I ever saw her as well. I was rooted to the seat. The Gaiety Theatre still does that to me. On the rare occasion we get time off, wherever we are, London, New York, wherever, I always try to go to the theatre. It's my focal point, and the love of theatre music has always gone with that.
At what point did an ambition to be on stage yourself begin to glimmer?
After the Gaiety pantomime there was never a doubt in my mind. When other people were out playing football I was putting on shows. There was a bank of field opposite our house across the street in Santry with an appropriately-sculpted hill which was a ready-made stage for me. I'd enlist anybody, to sing songs, recite something do little sketches.
Were you not regarded as a little eccentric?
Of course. But in all honesty it never really impinged on me. I suppose I was blinkered about it, single-minded, so it never quite occurred to me that people would think me odd. It was just what I wanted to do. The other side of it was the musical side. I started playing the piano, a toy piano at first, not very well. Then I abandoned that in favour of the guitar. I was writing songs by the time I was ten. I had piano lessons which gave me a bit of musical theory and that. I've gone back to it in the last year, learned to read music properly. It's easier jotting down ideas that way rather than having to look around for a tape recorder, by which time you have lost the tune.
Were you encouraged towards music at school?
God bless the Christian Brothers, art, music, anything creative just didn't occur to them. You had six streams, A, B, C, D, E and F, graded according to intelligence. The A and B classes and even the C were expected to do science subjects. If you were unfortunate enough to be stupid, you had to do art. And if you were really stupid you were allowed to do music. I believe it's different now, but that was the attitude at the time. I was in the school choir, though, and that was valuable. We had one of the best-known school-choirs in Dublin. We did the Feis Cheoil, carols concerts at the Metropolitan Hall in Abbey Street and we were always the choir outside the GPO on St Patrick's Day, along with the girls' choir from Scoil Aoine. I acquired a fairly well-developed sense of harmony from singing in three parts or whatever in the choir.
The Brothers might defend their attitudes on the grounds that they were preparing you for the real world in which the majority were going to have to make their way...
Yeah, well, but I find that very stressing, actually. I occasionally bump into people I was at school with, and that's what they say, that we were being prepared for jobs, or university or the civil service. But for somebody like me to whom geometry, chemistry, physics etc. meant absolutely nothing, it really was just biding time. And there were thousands like me.
Did that sense of the futility of it make you feel angry, unhappy?
I found ways round it. I realised that there was nothing I could really do to change it, so rather than feel incensed I got on with doing things outside of it. Myself and my mate Kieran had a band when we were about eleven. We wrote our own songs, did St Anthony's Hall on Sunday evenings, entered talent contests. We even made a record. Somebody gave us free time at Trend Studios. It was never released.
By the time you were sixteen or so there must, nevertheless, have been pressure on you to become qualified for a job.
Of course I felt that pressure. It was the 'something to fall back on' syndrome, which for me was journalism. I edited the school magazine for two or three years, ran it in the way fanzines were run four or five years later. It had a certain amount of grudging acceptance from the Christian Brothers. I think they realised that they weren't going to get much sense out of me in terms of a position in the civil service or whatever. That gave me a certain amount of leeway. It gave me the chance to ring up Horslips or Planxty's manager or even Maureen Potter and say, 'I want to interview you for my magazine', and they'd do it. Nobody who knew me doubted for a moment that I was going to be a musician, especially my parents, and they were anxious enough about it, and journalism became my something-to-fall-back-on. I got the required number of leaving passes and passed the relevant entrance exams to do the journalism course at Rathmines, except for one test which involved doing an essay about why you wanted to become a journalist. I wrote a surrealist piece about men in trench coats and trilbys with press tickets sticking out of their hat-bands. They called me in for the interview and said, 'You'll never make a journalist, maybe you'll make a creative writer.' That was the end of my career as a journalist. I became a messenger boy in an architect's office which I used as a base for managing Agnes Bernelle.
At that point, where you, in terms of the development of your own musical taste?
Well, I'd discovered Horslips, which for me was very important. They were my band. I used to go and slam-dance to Horslips. Well, it could hardly be called slam-dancing. Pogue dancing, maybe. The Pogue-o. It's the same sort of thing. I've asked myself what the atmosphere at a Pogues concert reminds me of, and it's Horslips. I used to have a feeling that I knew something, and the rest of the crowd knew something that Horslips' detractors never did. It didn't matter that Horslips got slagged off in certain quarters. We felt comfortable in the knowledge that it was just right. That's why T Rex and Slade and so on were never as big in Ireland as they were in Britain. Because we had Horslips.
Presumably Horslips' was the first Irish music you tuned into.
I hated Irish music until Horslips came along. I can remember watching RTE programmes like Bring Down The Lamp, and sniggering. It was the way it was rammed down your throat, like the Irish language - which I happen to think is a beautiful language and I'm sorry I can't speak it better. But because it was rammed down your throat you had to rebel against it. To us growing up, people like The Dubliners and the Clancy's all got thrown into the same bag, as *Irish music*. It was only when I was older and Horslips had come along that I realised that that's completely nonsense. There's an emotional side to it and a fun side and both of those things had been completely sanitised by the idea of 'protect our culture at all costs', the notion that it must be kept out of the hands of anyone who might do it harm. It's the same sort of crap that the Pogues have had from purists, the same thing that Sweeney's Men got and even Planxty. The bottom line is that people know intuitively when something is right, when something speaks for them. Irish music as 'officially' something presented didn't speak for me or for thousands upon thousands like me. But Horslips did, and some Horslips fans then went away and listened to Sean O'Riada records.
Was your discovery of Horslips a sudden, dramatic thing?
It wasn't quite the Road to Damascus. The first time I ever saw them was on an RTE series called Fonn, a six-week series. It was just one of those things which hit you. They did have a certain degree of theatricality and glamour about them. But it was the first time anybody had attempted that sense-of-identity thing, the first time anybody declared that there could actually be an Irish rock music, and not just in instrumental terms. I mean, we are quite a literary country. In other areas we are hopeless. We have never had a particularly good visual arts tradition. We have been good at literature and music, and I think Horslips were the first people to recognise that these two things could be put together. I saw, potentially, what could come out of that. And so, I suppose, did Shane MacGowan.
How did Agnes Bernelle enter this scene, after her bit-part in your toddlerdom? I've read a number of colourful, irreconcilable versions.
That was the result of an RTE series, too. It was a lunchtime radio series called Solo which ran for a couple of years, in which different performers would do bits of their repertoire in fifteen-minute slots at lunchtime for a week. Agnes happened to be performing one week. I was completely enchanted by her. She was doing Brecht-Weill things and so on - I couldn't believe she actually lived in Dublin. She seemed the ultimate in combining theatricality with the kind of music I liked. I nearly got expelled that week because I didn't go back to school at all in the afternoons. I was sixteen or so at the time and I decided, 'I have to find this woman'. Purely by accident I discovered that she was directing a play at the Project. It was called 'Oncle, Oncle', which means, 'Uncle, Uncle', by Gunter Grass. I walked in and sort of imposed myself. I've read somewhere that I was wearing my father's clothes, but that's ridiculous. My father wouldn't have been seen dead in them. I was wearing well-unfashionable forties trousers and braces, a striped blazer and a fedora hat and sunglasses.
Should I ask why you were dressed like that?
That was the way I felt. I suppose I've always dressed a bit flamboyantly. Maybe it was my way of standing apart from people, because I was, and still am, very shy. Shy people have to find a way of announcing their presence. I walked up to her and said, 'You are Agnes Bernelle. I am Johnny Duke. I'm a pop singer and also a journalist.'
How did she respond?
She looked at me a bit oddly and handed me two tickets for the opening night. I went along and collared her and said 'What about the interview for my magazine?' She said, 'What magazine?' and I said 'I'm a freelance, I don't know, yet.'
Anyway, we did the interview there and then and in the middle of it I said, 'Did you ever consider making a record?' She said nobody had ever asked her. I went out to her house in Sandymount and listened to these tapes, absolutely enthralled. I said, 'I think I can persuade somebody to make a record of these tapes, can I borrow them?' She said, 'Darling, they are the only copies I've got.' Then she looked at me and made a decision and said, 'Alright, you can have them.' Apparently after I'd left she said to Maurice, her husband, 'That's the last I'll ever see of those tapes.' But three days later I'd got Eamonn Carr and Jackie Hayden interested in putting out a record. I phoned her from a call-box outside the school and said, 'This is Philip Taylor, I've got you a record deal.' I'd changed my name by that stage, although she didn't know that.
Did it occur to you that your contemporaries at school might have seen you as a totally bizarre sort of person?
I was so shy that I really didn't know many of them all that well. I think I appeared vulnerable to people because I was so retiring in one way. They thought there must be more to me - the dark horse syndrome. I did get teased a bit but because I had this outward aura of vulnerability, I think people thought they couldn't get too close, couldn't really tease me because I might snap, break down in tears. I never got into a fight with another kid. I never got beaten up. None of those things ever happened to me. I must have had some invisible coating that said, 'Don't touch'. To some extent I think I still have.
Did the record come out?
Oh, yes. It wasn't a particularly good record because it had been designed principally as a soundtrack for a film and had been made on less than a shoestring. It was called 'Bernelle On Brecht'. It sold about a thousand copies, upped Agnes's asking fee a little and got her some publicity. And it gave me an introduction to the big, bad world of music.
The beginnings of The Radiators date from here.
Well, it was around the same time I became involved with Steve Rapid and Pete Holidai. Steve and Eamonn had known one another for years and I knew Eamonn from Horslips days. I also knew Jackie Hayden because I'd once gone into his office when he was with CBS with a dreadful demo tape of a band I had at the time. So those were the connections. Steve and Pete were putting a band together which went through several name changes before it became The Radiators. I auditioned three times and failed three times. Then they called me up one day and said, 'Would you like to be the lead guitarist, Billy's just left,' and I said, 'I don't want to be lead guitarist because I can't play lead guitar, could I not be rhythm guitarist?' And Pete said, 'No, because I'm the rhythm guitarist.' I said, 'Shit, OK,' and thus became lead guitarist with The Radiators. By this stage I'd left school and was working in the architect's office, and the architect's son was Mark Megaray, who played bass. And through a friend of a friend I met Jimmy Wynn. I was trying to get my own band together. The Radiators were basically a merger of my band and Pete and Steve's.
You've talked about the importance of tradition to your way of thinking about music. But although The Radiators never fitted comfortably into the punk thing, they were presented and seen at the time as part of punk, which was a movement which made a virtue of being disrespectful and even contemptuous of tradition.
I found all that regrettable. The people in punk who did it well - The Pistols, The Clash to an extent, The Ramones in America I suppose, and that's about all - they were all that mattered. The mistake The Radiators made was aligning themselves with a movement they had bugger all to do with. Interestingly enough, a lot of our second album, Ghostown, was written before the first album, and Ghostown is a very unpunky album. But it got shelved. Everything was moving so fast in those days. If we'd been asked, 'Do you really want to be involved in this phenomenon because you have the right co-ordinates and the same general sort of attitude,' we'd have said no. But that's not the way it happened. At the time I was just pleased to get a record out and if this was the way to do it, fair enough, up to a point. In retrospect, I think it was a mistake, a huge mistake. Everything just spiralled. I can't tell you about the feel of it because it all happened so fast. Suddenly we were part of this thing, punk rock. To be fair, it did become obvious to us that we were not part of it. We didn't wear spiky hair, we didn't have safety pins through our noses. We were aware that we had something different to offer which, alluding back to Horslips, was that we were an Irish rock band. That's something we expressed on Ghostown, but by that stage it was too late.
Why too late?
We'd stopped playing gigs to go into the studio and finish Ghostown. We hadn't played for six months and then decided to do a big comeback gig at the Electric Ballroom (in London). One of the bands supporting us was Stiff Little Fingers. I remember looking out into the audience before we went on. It was a very badly attended gig. We'd never really built up a following. We'd done a huge tour with Thin Lizzy, but that wasn't our potential audience. So I looked out and there were all these people with shaved heads and 999 tattooed on their skulls. Stiff Little Fingers went out and blew us off the stage. We tried pathetically to get across songs like 'Faithful Departed'. It was terrible. From that point on our morale just dipped. We were unfortunate in having made a decision, if a decision it was, to become involved in this movement, or in the death of this movement. But it was too late at that stage. The damage had been done. We never recovered.
The business side of the punk thing was crude and ferocious as well. All that must have been very alien to you.
It still is. It doesn't get any better. I divorce myself from it as far as possible. I don't really want to know what goes on. I just want to go on making the music. I managed The Radiators. I saw it all at first hand and I suffered badly from it. I dealt with the agents, the record companies, and I was not cut out to be that soldier. Things where I don't have a manager now to stand guard, being a record producer and so forth - I hate it. You have to develop a sense of self-protection. The basic thing is to avoid working with people who are not gentlemen.
From time to time The Radiators broke up, in 1981, until you re-emerged with The Pogues, you appear to have just been pottering about...
I did get that feeling, particularly from people in Ireland. I found it very offensive, actually. It was offensive to me personally, because I'd just got around to seeing what it was that I did. And there was a certain implication in some of it that The Pogues somehow weren't worthy of my services. In the three or four years after The Radiators I worked in a record shop in London, I listened, I learned, I produced. I did a once-off support for Moving Hearts at the Stadium. I'd lost a lot of confidence as a result of The Radiators experience.
With what effect?
I didn't write a song for seven years. I did try, but I couldn't finish anything. Basically, I see myself as a songwriter - but I'm a songwriter who hasn't written much because it takes me so long to get it the way I want it. It goes right back to what I was saying earlier - that respect for songs is central. For example, have you ever wondered why so many basically crap Broadway musicals of the twenties, thirties and forties contain so many great songs?
I'd assume it was just that the songs sold the show, so that's where the main creative effort was put in...
But there was no need for the songs to be of that lasting quality. We are talking about a time when nobody knew there were going to be new media, that gramophone records would be with us forever, that films would be with us forever. There was no reason they should write to such a high standard for a crappy, boy-meets-girl plot. I've worked it out recently, from soaking myself in the stuff, that there's a tradition there which started as early in this century as 1910 and that those songwriters felt themselves a part of. Like, George Gershwin would have shot himself rather than write anything which caused offence to Jerome Kern. So the standard was not only maintained but improved as the decades went on. Who remembers 'Anything Goes'? But that show included 'It's De Lovely' and 'I Get A Kick Out Of You'. They are immortal but the show is essentially shit. That's the feeling I've got as a songwriter. I wouldn't want to write songs that I wouldn't want to play to those guys - which is why I write so few songs. What unites anything I do is love of the songs. You shouldn't defile the traditions of songs, whether it's the Irish song tradition or the Broadway song tradition.
But how does that relate to what you're currently involved in?
'Fairytale Of New York' is an example of where those two traditions can meet. One of the things I love about that song is that it has an introductory verse which is part of songwriting that went by the board. 'I Get A Kick Out Of You' is a classic example. Most people will go, 'I get no kick from champagne/mere alcohol etc.' But in fact it's got a beautiful verse: 'My story's much too sad to be told/Practically everything leaves me cold...' It's a technical part of the song, but it's commonly left out. You can hear 'My Funny Valentine' sung without the verse. The refrain is lovely, but the verse just adds something extra to it. I have a recording of it where even Frank Sinatra can't be bothered to sing the verse, which for somebody like him is a criminal offence. I think that at some point people just lost interest in the songwriting and got more interested in the personalities who were singing them.
Were you never able to summon up, even after the break-up of The Radiators, that artistic arrogance or sense of self-sufficiency which enables the artist in the garret to say, 'Fuck them all if they don't appreciate me, I know I'm great,' and keep producing work?
Maybe when I was seventeen I had that, the feeling that I could do anything. But when reality hits you in your twenties, it's a different story. I needed time to go back again. A number of times I was very severely depressed about it. We'd broken up without ever knowing how good we were, or whether we'd been good at all. All the business pressures, all the extraneous pressures, it had been so difficult to try to keep the band going. Depression can generate itself, dig itself deeper into you. It takes something really cathartic to change that and get you out. I was still drifting for a while even after I'd joined The Pogues. Being in The Pogues was the cathartic thing for me.