- 17 Jan 19
"We were absolutely terrible!" winces Noel Hogan...
There’s a tendency among musicians to romanticise their early years, but Noel Hogan is brutally honest about The Cranberry Saw Us’ live prowess (or lack thereof) when they played their first few local Limerick gigs with new singer Dolores O’Riordan, a true rock ‘n’ roll ingénue who’d previously only performed with her church and school choirs.
“We were absolutely terrible,” Noel winces. “We’d write and record these songs and then try and recreate them on stage, which didn’t work because we were using lots of reverb and effects in the studio that ended up being empty space when we did them live. Dolores was really nervous and would stare at the floor, the ceiling, Mike playing the bass, Ferg drumming – at anything other than the audience who mainly got to see the side and back of her head.
“A turning point was being flown to London by this American label, Imago,” he continues. “We naively thought, ‘This is it, we’re going to be signed’, but after playing in a room next-door to the Town & Country Club, the main guy said, ‘You’re just not ready yet. Go away and develop.’ So, tail between our legs, we went home, bought a proper amp and a distortion pedal and started to beef it up. It was a combination of that and Dolores and I getting to know each other a lot better. At the beginning, you’re gingerly dancing around things because you don’t want to insult somebody you’ve only just met.”
Those early gigs may have fallen way short of The Beatles in The Cavern or Nirvana in The Vogue, but it wasn’t long before Noel and Dolores were making beautiful music together in the studio.
“The very first song we wrote together was ‘Linger’,” he recalls. “I’d come up with the music before she joined but there were no words, so we got used to playing it as an instrumental. It had something about it, so I gave a cassette version to Dolores and only a few days later she came back and said, ‘I’ve got something for that.’ Not having proper equipment, she was plugged into my guitar amp and all I could hear was the melody and the word ‘linger’. It was only when we went in to do the first demo that I got to hear all the words and realise it was a break-up song. Up until the very end, the biggest buzz of writing was hearing what direction Dolores would take it in lyrically. It was like, ‘Here’s a bunch of music’, and she’d go, ‘I like this one and this one.’ I loved going over to rehearsals and then, as things went on, she’d email me ideas and stuff. Even after being in a band together for 28-years, I couldn’t predict what Dolores would come up with, which kept things fresh.”
‘Linger’ was promptly followed by the penning of another of their globe-conquering tunes, ‘Dreams’, which for a brief period had a spoken word intro.
“God, I’d forgotten that!” Noel remarks. “It’s only this year that I’ve properly listened to ‘Dreams’ – playing it every single show we became numb to it – and I’m like, ‘Wow, these are the thoughts of a 17-year-old!’ Dolores lyrics are so good!”
What they accompany isn’t bad either…
“Thanks! Sitting in my bedroom writing it, I had no idea that the song would grow and grow like it has. I’m still pinching myself and wondering, ‘How did we come up with ‘Dreams’?’ because it’s on ads, it’s on movies, it’s on the radio – it’s constantly there.”
The reason for all this fond reflection is the 25th anniversary box-set re-release of the debut Cranberries album, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?
Produced by Stephen Street who went on to become their George Martin-like fifth member, it’s a record that still dazzles from plaintive start (‘I Still Do’) to heartbreaking finish (‘Put Me Down’).
Does the making of it feel like a lifetime ago?
“It does and it doesn’t,” Noel reflects. “With the year we’ve had it can seem very distant, but I still remember, plain as day, sitting in my bedroom getting ‘Linger’ together. My first time hearing Everybody Else… from start to finish in over 20 years was when I went to master it in Abbey Road. It was a month after Dolores passed away and my first day back at work, so to speak. Obviously, I’ve heard ‘Linger’ and ‘Dreams’ a gazillion times, but there’s so much else about the record – the little nuances – that I’d completely forgotten. I don’t mean it in a cocky way, but I was really pleased how well it’s held up and sounds now.”
Among the treasure trove of bonus tracks is ‘Íosa’, an Everybody Else… outtake that has gained mythic status among Cranberries fans.
“It’s Irish for ‘Jesus’, which at the time I didn’t know because I’m brutal at all languages - including my own! We played it once or twice live and rehearsed it now and again, but the general feeling was that being in Irish it wouldn’t travel well. It had never been mixed, so I said to the Abbey Road guy, ‘I don’t want it to sound big and flash and modern. Give it a bit of EQ and leave it at that.’”
The result is 4mins 10secs of exquisitely crafted pop, which had me welling up the moment Dolores starts singing her heart out as Gaelige. What’s often forgotten in the telling of the Cranberries story is that Everybody Else… came within a whisker of being binned along with its creators.
“We’d started the album with Pearse (Gilmore, their original Limerick mentor) but that fell apart after we’d spent a lot of Island Records’ money,” Noel explains. “They weren’t willy-nilly going to go, ‘Here, take two, lads’ so we were given a trial period of about six days with Stephen Street who I’d asked for but didn’t think we’d get because he’d had all that success with The Smiths and the first Morrissey solo album, Viva Hate. After working very long hours for a week, the guy who’d signed us, Denny Cordell, flew from New York to Dublin to see how we were doing. We were shitting ourselves playing him the three or four songs we’d recorded – I think ‘Dreams’ was in that first batch – because he could’ve pulled the plug on it there and then, but he looked at us with a big smile and said, ‘Just keep going.’ That’s when we realised that the combination of us and Stephen was working.”
Asked whether Dolores was nervous or confident working with such an A-List producer, Noel smiles and says, “Again, a bit of both. Dolores had this telltale thing of biting her jaw if she was nervous – I remember her even last year doing it. She wasn’t the girl that used to have her back to the audience any more, but still needed to be told, ‘Yeah, that’s great!’ by Stephen. We knew what we wanted, but didn’t know how to get there. He definitely shaped the sound of the Cranberries. Stephen wasn’t a dictator – I don’t think that would’ve worked with us at all – and made sure things kept flowing. We laughed a lot making that album, and ended up even better friends as a result.”
They didn’t know it at the time, but the Cranberries were the catalyst for Stephen Street also getting to produce Blur’s Modern Life Is Rubbish. “Yeah, he only told me the story when we were doing our latest album,” Noel reveals. “When Denny rang Stephen about doing Everybody Else…, he said, ‘Come down and see us play next week in the Marquee. ‘ At the gig, which thankfully he really liked, he bumped into Graham Coxon who was also there, and they got talking about working together. Stephen had done a couple of bits with Blur already, but that was the first time the idea of him producing Modern Life Is Rubbish was floated. I think, like us, they’d started on it with somebody else and it wasn’t really working out. So, basically, Stephen was two-timing us going between Blur and the Cranberries!”
While the fashion then was for either London or mid-Atlantic twangs, Street made no attempt to tame Dolores’ accent.
“In fact, as we travelled and her accent softened, as it does, he’d push her back towards the more Irish thing she was known for. If ever an Americanism crept in, he’d say it to Dolores and she’d switch back into Limerick mode!”
The thrill of Everybody Else Is Doing It So Why Can’t We? hitting the racks on March 1, 1993 was tempered by the British inkies giving it a lukewarm reception.
“The NME and Melody Maker had had the demos for two years, so by the time the record came out they’d lost interest. If it charted it was in the hundreds, which left us feeling totally gutted because we’d put so much work into it. We always got a good crowd in London, but elsewhere we were playing really crappy venues to five people. After doing a particularly awful gig at a club in Newport called TJ’s, we were sure the record company was going to drop us. Around that time we were offered a Hothouse Flowers tour in Europe, which we treated as a paid holiday before Island got rid of us. We went off with the Flowers without a penny to our name, relying on their catering for meals and the promoters for a few beers after the gigs. They were doing well and really looked after us. A few weeks into the tour we got a call from somebody in Island’s New York office saying, ‘You need to drop what you’re doing and come to the States.’ Basically, ‘Linger’ had taken off mainly through college radio, and MTV had picked it up on it too. We left the Flowers a week early, and flew straight from Spain to our first US show in Denver. Everything changed over night.”
Seven million album sales later and the Cranberries were vying with U2 for the title of Biggest Irish Rock Band.
“We went from playing the Psychic Pig in Trowbridge to Radio City Hall in New York in the space of about twelve months. It was pure craziness.” In addition to overseeing the Everybody Else… re-release, Noel has also been applying the finishing touches to the album the band were recording at the time of Dolores’ death in January. Noel admits that completing it without her is one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do.
“Yeah, it’s been a weird,” Noel says, his voice faltering slightly. “Once the dust had settled a bit, I started going through the drives and everything Dolores had sent me during the previous six months and put some rough mixes together. I sent them to Mike and Fergal to see what their thoughts were and they felt that we had the makings of a really strong album. The obvious thing after that was to contact Stephen and he agreed straight away that it was something that had to be finished. He had another project he was meant to be starting, but moved it back because we all felt the momentum was there.
“We went back to Stephen in May and did the strings and extra guitars and keyboards. I’m delighted to have had the opportunity to do it, but it’s been a very emotional experience. After a day in the studio, I’d go to wherever I was staying and think, ‘This just isn’t fair.’”
Has it given him and the rest of the lads a sense of closure?
“Kind of, yeah,” he nods. “It also meant a lot to us that we did two months of gigs last year that were really well received. We obviously didn’t realise the symbolism of it at the time, but it was us stripping the songs back to how they were originally written – acoustic guitars and Dolores’ voice. It was smaller venues, and we all really enjoyed ourselves, so it was a good final tour.”