- 23 Jul 15
...Or Ireland at least. Blazing rows erupted and staff members had to be pried apart, but the votes are in and the 50 best Irish gigs since Hot Press's inception have been settled on.
We knew, of course, that it was an impossible task. But we weren’t going to be put off by anything as trivial as that!
This issue of Hot Press is dedicated to naming the 50 Greatest Irish Gigs Ever – well, since the inception of the magazine in 1977, for a start. When the idea was originally mooted at an editorial meeting, the debate around the table began immediately. Would we include festivals? How could you do a special issue on the greatest gigs and not include The Beatles in the Adelphi Cinema in 1963? How indeed? Can you really compare Abba in the RDS with Radiohead in the Rock Garden? A tough one! And what about the great residencies, where a band or a performer goes out and delivers their best, week after week, over a sustained period? Where would they fit into this grand edifice?
The caveats didn’t matter. Whatever way we came at it, we knew that it was something that we had to do. In fact the more furiously people argued, the clearer it became that this was, and is, the stuff of journalism. The Smiths in 1984 was the best ever gig in the SFX. Discuss!
At first, I hadn’t thought we’d go the whole hog and actually put the gigs in order, from 1 to 50. No one else around the editorial table was in any doubt, however. “That’s the whole point of something like this,” one of the gentler of the crew said firmly. Others were far more vociferous, gesticulating wildly and generally acting as if I had a few screws loose. “You have to fucking put them in order,” a member of the design team opined. “Otherwise what’s the fucking point?” That he was suddenly so unusually eloquent was impressive. I was beginning to be persuaded.
Of course there were great gigs before Hot Press was there to report on them. I was at more than a few. But it is fair to say that, collectively, the Hot Press crew have been at the vast majority of the thousands of shows since, at which reputations have been made – and on occasion perhaps destroyed. And so we began a process of consultation with the multitude of writers, reporters, musicians, journalists and sages who went out into the field for us at different times. We dug through the files and located the original reviews of hundreds of shows, big and small. We consulted the runes.
The more we delved, the bigger the task seemed to get. But what did become clear, when we paused for a moment of prayer and reflection, was that there are gigs that can be thought of as seminal, and which had a profound effect, not just on the people that were there to witness first-hand what was going on, but also on the wider culture of music in Ireland, and – on occasion indeed – on Irish society as a whole.
Hot Press was launched at the time of the punk explosion. Up to that point Ireland had been seen by far too many rock ’n’ roll bands as a place to be studiously avoided. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, among others, had travelled here to play what truly were ground-breaking gigs in the 1960s, but once the troubles in Northern Ireland erupted, the agents and the managers ran scared. For most of the 1970s, with the odd honourable exception – notably country artists like Johnny Cash, pop stars like Gilbert O’Sullivan and The Bay City Rollers, and (encouraged by Rory Gallagher’s brother and manager Dónal) the biggest rock act of the 1970s, Led Zeppelin – Ireland was largely untroubled by outfits of real international stature.
Punk changed all of that. The anti-establishment attitude of the bands and the rambunctious nature of the music meant that they were far less likely to be put off by any insidious paranoia about potential paramilitary violence – which was, in any event, only the remotest of remote possibilities. Besides, with Stiff Little Fingers emerging in Belfast and The Undertones in Derry, as well as The Outcasts, Rudi, The Moondogs and more, the North itself was now seen as an essential part of the greater punk and new wave scene. For some, it was a badge of honour to play Belfast at least.
It is probably fair to say that the first golden era of Irish music began in 1977. Rory Gallagher, who had blazed a trail through the 1970s, playing astonishing gigs in the National Stadium, Dublin, the Ulster Hall, Belfast and City Hall, Cork, headlined Ireland’s first ever proper outdoor rock festival in Macroom in June of that year. Thin Lizzy followed hard on that crucial show with the Dalymount Festval, which had the benefit of a bill that included the glorious noise of Graham Parker and the Rumour in their pomp, The Boomtown Rats in electrifying ascendant mode, and The Radiators From Space, among others.
It helped that the Rats were on the cusp of something. Already racking up the hit singles, they had one of the most compulsive front- men of the moment in Bob Geldof. Suddenly, young Irish musicians and fans alike became aware that the door was open if you knew how to push it. The Rats duly decamped to London, but all of the rising UK punk acts of the time came to Ireland and played brilliantly frenzied shows in places like Trinity College, the Top Hat in Dun Laoghaire, the State Cinema in Phibsboro, what had been the Fiesta Club in Talbot Street (and the name of which, as a punk venue, escapes me now), as well as Downtown Campus in Cork.
Jim Aiken had pioneered the promotion of international gigs in Ireland. Pat Egan went after a more explicitly rock audience, bringing country rock acts in from the States, as well as punk and new wave bands like The Stranglers and The Jam from the UK. Denis Desmond’s MCD joined the fray at the end of the 1970s. It became a hugely competitive scene – and music fans all over Ireland were the winners, as this country was gradually established as a place where every self- respecting international act simply had to play.
That is, in a sense, the background to the debate as to what was the greatest gig ever in Ireland; and indeed to the competing claims that various shows can make to a place in the Top 50. For a start, then, we had to establish a few ground rules. It would be best, we felt, if we limited any artist to one nomination. To take the obvious example, for fans of the band, U2 might be entitled to consideration for anything up to 10 key appearances There were the Dandelion Market gigs; the Jingle Balls series in McGonagles nightclub; the National Stadium show in 1980, following which they were signed by Island Records; the blistering Phoenix Park festival bill in 1983, with Eurythmics, Simple Minds, and Big Country in support; their first Croke Park gig in 1985; the surprise appearance at the Lark By The Lee in Cork the same year; the Joshua Tree tour at Croke Park in 1987; the PopMart tour in 1997 at Lansdowne Road or, better still, in the Botanic Gardens, Belfast; the Slane homecoming in 2001; or the Vertigo or 360° tours, again in Croke Park. Of these, we decided, only one could be admitted.
We also ruled that festivals were, and are, a law unto themselves. Looking back at the bill for the 1995 Féile, which took place in Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork, you have to acknowledge that it was positively fucking astonishing, all the more so in the light of subsequent developments: Moby, Blur, Massive Attack, The Prodigy, Chemical Brothers, Kylie Minogue, The Stone Roses, Underworld, Paul Weller, Tricky, Orbital, Ash, Nick Cave, The Beautiful South, The Orb, Elastica, Reef, David Holmes – and that was just for starters. But at a festival, every act is to one degree or another at the mercy of forces that are outside their control. To compare Blur at Féile with their RHK show in 2013 just wouldn’t make sense. Or so we reasoned.
Festivals, of course, are events that can and often do live forever in the imagination of people who attend. They are, in many instances, essential coming-of-age rituals. And at the best ones, there is a beautiful madness afoot, up into which people can be swept, so that they do and see and experience things that otherwise might forever be denied them.
Rory Gallagher’s Macroom Festival in 1977 was a case in point. Hot Press went down just after the launch of the magazine and we engaged with the Irish rock citizenry directly for the first time. It was a defining moment for many. Edge was in the audience that day, as were numerous other aspiring young musicians; the U2 guitarist picked up a copy of Hot Press for the first time there too. It was a day on which people began to get the measure of what music might make possible here in Ireland – and what Irish music could ultimately achieve.
That was followed into the annals by the Lisdoonvarna Festival, a magnificently bacchanalian romp in the wilds of Co. Clare that ran for six remarkable years and was immortalised by Christy Moore in his brilliant, eponymous paean, entitled of course ‘Lisdoonvarna'. Lisdoon ended in tears for reasons that are too painful and complicated to go into here, but the emergence in 1981 of Slane Castle as a one-day ‘festival' location had, in any event, suggested a different – and it has to be said – somewhat more civilised set of opportunities.
But there always has been an appetite for the kind of event that offers a rite of passage for young audiences finding their adult feet for the first time. It is something that MCD identified first with Féile, then with Witnness and subsequently Oxegen.
Sometimes, the extraordinary scale of the success of these events is underestimated by Irish people. In the UK, Glastonbury is the mother of all festivals. A huge cultural event, it attracts 175,000 people. But that is on an island with a population of 60 million. On a per capita basis, the equivalent attendance at an Irish festival would be 17,500. Oxegen, at the height of its popularity, saw an astonishing 80,000 fans descend on Punchestown.
Which was the best Féile? What was the ultimate Oxegen bill? Has there been a stand-out Electric Picnic, the event pioneered in Stradbally by John Reynolds of PoD, that was head and shoulders above the rest? How do the Tennent’s Live gigs in the North compare? What about the Fleadhs in Tramore?
Well, having taken up the challenge we have had to adjudicate, dammit. We would pick the Top 10 festivals and list them separately to the 50 Greatest Gigs. That was the decision. There seemed to be no other logical approach.
And yet the arguments raged. Was the Fleetwood Mac gig in the National Stadium in 1969 really better that any of the post-Rumours extravaganzas, as seen most recently in the magnificently salubrious environs of 3Arena? We decided it was. It is deeply sad that the band that wrote and recorded music as profoundly brilliant and beautiful as ‘Man of the World’, ‘Albatross’, ‘Oh Well’, ‘Black Magic Woman’ and the gloriously incendiary ’The Green Manalishi’ imploded so spectacularly. But the gig was itself cathartic in a way that the latter-day Fleetwood Mac never could be. Or that is the Hot Press verdict, much as we love the incarnation that emerged in 1975 with the Fleetwood Mac album, released the demonically addictive Rumours in 1977 – and returned to the fray together in their original five-piece glory this very year.
A lot, of course, is about perspective. We happened to have two people at the Rock Garden, a tiny venue in Temple Bar, for the appearance there of Radiohead. And we hunted down others. There is something utterly special about seeing a band that has what it takes in spades, before the rest of the world has caught up with them – as a result conjuring the sense of a shared secret being revealed among initiates. Some of those legendary ‘small' gigs had to be included.
Inevitably, we have, in any event, our own personal mythology to think about. From the early days of Hot Press, I rate Ry Cooder in the National Stadium in 1977 among the best gigs I have ever seen. But I am a guitar player and Cooder was then – and probably is now still – the doyen of six string mastery. There was Ian Dury in the Olympic Ballroom: no English band could ever groove quite like the Blockheads. And Elvis Costello, on a mad, amphetamine-fuelled night in the Stella Cinema, Rathmines. None of these gigs made the top 50. Neither did the gigs Hot Press promoted with XTC in the Chariot in Ranelagh (stupendous) or De Danann in the Project Arts Centre (ditto). And nor did the inestimably brilliant Ani di Franco in the Olympia, Lucinda Williams in Tripod, Guy Clark in the Button Factory or Michael Franti in Whelan's. I could have got cranky about it, but what’d be the point? There have been hundreds of thousands of gigs. We have tried to identify the ones without which Ireland might have been a different – and I should say, crucially, a lesser – place.
And so, the list is done.
Now it is over to you. Maybe there are ones that we have omitted which really should be – which have to be – included in the 50 Greatest Gigs Ever in Ireland, or in the additional Top 10s we have created for Best Festivals, Best Residencies and Best Pre-Hot Press gigs. Our job now is to listen and absorb. And in a fortnight’s time, we will publish the results of what the Irish public have to tell us, on hotpress.com. I, for one, can’t wait to see the results of your deliberations.
But for now, to be going on with, let us take this opportunity to celebrate the extraordinary culture of live music which has been created in this country, as reflected in what is the magnificent gallery of musical memories published in this issue of Hot Press. It is true that it wouldn’t, and couldn’t, have happened without the Irish audiences, who are – rightly – regarded as up there among the very best in the world by visiting artists and bands of every stripe and hue. But this extraordinary culture also, definitively, wouldn’t have been fashioned without the promoters and the bookers, the visionaries and the venue builders, along with the men and the women who soldier in the trenches – the roadies, the sound engineers, the lighting crews, the guitar techs, the humpers, the haulers, the people behind the bars, and the owners who have a special grá for music, song and dance...
I want to salute in particular the thousands upon thousands of unsung operatives who have put their hands to the wheel when it was needed to get the show on the road and the artists onstage. To all of you: a huge thanks from Hot Press, and from the audiences that came, that clapped, that shouted, that whistled and roared and raised their lighters – and later their mobiles – aloft in enthralled homage. And who stamped and called out: "Encore! Encore! Encore"! You have given us so many of the memories that shape and define who we are, and what we believe in, as well as how we have lived our lives and, hopefully, as the song says, loved the ones we are with.
Let’s hear it, then, one more time with feeling... Encore! Encore! Encore!
Click here to read through our list of the '50 Greatest Irish Gigs' and submit your own picks.