The Blades

TrackAlbum
Hot For YouRaytown Revisited
Ghost Of A ChanceRaytown Revisited
The Bride Wore WhiteLive From The Olympia
AnimationRaytown Revisited
Revelations Of HeartbreakRaytown Revisited
DownmarketThe Last Man In Europe
The Last Man In EuropeThe Last Man In Europe
Those Were The DaysThe Last Man In Europe
PrideThe Last Man In Europe
ImpossibleLive From The Olympia

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Contributor: Andrew Shields

The year was 1987. The place was the Baggot Inn, a small pub in Baggot Street in Dublin, very close to the city centre. As a rock venue, it was a very small one and when the better bands in the city at that time played there it tended to become both very smoky and uncomfortably packed. The crowd that night was particularly expectant as the lead singer in the band we were just about to see had already established himself as one of the finest songwriters in Ireland. Indeed, it had been widely predicted that, with a little bit of luck, he was well on the road to achieving the level of recognition outside Ireland which his undoubted excellence as an artist had already merited.

When the band took the stage, the sense of an almost cult-like identification between the audience there that night and the band which had already pervaded the venue took on an even greater intensity. There was also that immediate sense of community which this band seemed to create wherever they played. Their performance that night was, as usual, a superb one, with the excellent short, sharp self-penned songs by the extremely talented lead singer being interspersed with judicious covers of soul classics like My Girl, Heatwave and Young, Gifted And Black. For me, that gig and those few I saw subsequently at the same venue over the following months remain among the very best I have ever seen by an Irish rock band.

The band which I saw on those great nights in the Baggot Inn was not in fact The Blades. It was rather, The Partisans, the group which Paul Cleary, the frontman and chief songwriter in the earlier band, formed after its break up in 1986. Unfortunately, I never got to see The Blades in their heyday (1977-86), an omission for which I have recently made up – of which, more later.

Like The Partisans, The Blades had the reputation of being a great live act, one which they had built up over the three years of intensive gigging they did before making their first recordings. In their original incarnation , which featured Paul Cleary himself on bass and vocals, his brother Lawrence (or ‘Lar’) on guitar, and Pat Larkin on drums, the band were one of the first of the Irish groups to be formed in the wake of the musical explosion caused by The Sex Pistols. While Paul Cleary’s songwriting was undoubtedly influenced by punk (and by the power pop of bands like The Buzzcocks), he also had a wide range of other musical interests, including the great 1960s English rock bands, soul (especially Motown), northern soul, reggae, ska and two tone (he later admitted being ‘blown away’ by The Specials when The Blades supported them in Dublin in 1979) which also informed his writing style. Over time, he also absorbed other influences from contemporary British songwriters like Elvis Costello and Paul Weller, with whom he shared an interest in ‘mod’ culture.

Like many other Irish bands and solo artists, The Blades were to have a rather tortuous and complicated history with English record companies. In consequence, their recording history is a rather complicated one. Their first two singles were released by the English company, Energy Records, with whom they were also supposed to record an LP, although, in the event, the company refused to release it. This sequence of first rate singles, which began with Hot For You in 1981, established Cleary as an outstanding talent and as one of the best Irish songwriters to emerge since the appearance between the mid-1960s and early 1970s of artists like Van Morrison, Rory Gallagher and Phil Lynott. Hot For You, although undoubtedly somewhat derivative and owing a good deal to American new wave acts like Blondie, nonetheless gave evidence of Cleary’s superb ear for a pop hook. The band’s next single, Ghost Of A Chance, also released on Energy Records, was both an immediate power pop classic and also marked a significant step forward in Cleary’s songwriting. It was a sharply observed portrayal of the end of an already doomed relationship, which was also clearly set against a distinctively Irish background.

This shift towards a more sharply defined style of songwriting was to bear even greater fruit with the group’s next single, The Bride Wore White. Although Paul Cleary was later to be critical of those who described The Blades as a ‘working class’ band (a term which he felt was a rather patronising one), nonetheless it was the case that growing up in the Dublin working class neighbourhood of Ringsend left a distinctive mark both on his political perspective, which is, broadly speaking, left-wing and on his songwriting. The Bride then was the first single by The Blades to be based directly on Cleary’s own personal experience of life in Ringsend. It also dealt, in a direct fashion, with the sense of hopelessness and pessimism which was widespread among the many long term unemployed people living there. Cleary was later to be critical of his own production on that single and I have selected the live version recorded at The Blades’ first reunion concert in the Olympia in Dublin in December 2013 for inclusion here. It is a much sharper reading of the song than the original version had been and it also brings out its debt to ska music much more clearly. The song was also the subject of one of the earliest and best Irish music videos (see clip above), memorably shot in black and white.

In my opinion, however, the B-side of The Bride, Animation, is an even greater song and is as finely crafted a love song as any other Irish songwriter has written. It is one of those rare songs where I can remember the very first time I heard it (on Dave Fanning, the Irish DJ’s s radio show) in 1982. It blew me away then and continues to do so as an almost perfect song and one that shows Cleary’s superb ability to write about complex emotions in a very concise way.

Although Lar Cleary played on both sides of The Bride single, both he and Pat Larkin, the original drummer, had left the band by the time it was released. Both had been disillusioned by the failure of Energy Records to release the album the band had been working on. They were replaced by Brian Foley on bass and Jake Reilly on drums. At this point, the band also began to make use of a brass section, usually including Frank Duff on trumpet and Paul Grimes on trombone. For most people, this was the classic line-up of the band and it was the one which was to re-form for a number of reunion concerts from 2013 onwards, with the addition of Conor Brady of The Partisans on lead guitar. It now appears that this reunion may become a more permanent affair over the next few years. The addition of the brass section gave Cleary the opportunity to further explore his soul and ska influences and he was to do so to good effect in the band’s remaining singles. Of these, Revelations Of Heartbreak, released in late 1982, was one of the band’s most effective pop-soul songs (see clip above).

Following their departure from Energy, the band had signed with the Irish independent record label, Reekus, and it was with them that their later singles and their long-awaited debut album, The Last Man In Europe, were released. In the event, that album, first released in 1986 was to be the only studio album the group made and it included tracks such as Downmarket and The Last Man In Europe which they had released as singles over the previous three years. Downmarket was, perhaps, Cleary’s most effective depiction of the stifling effects which the recession of the early 1980s had on young working class people living in Dublin. It was also his most fully realised lyric, moving from a depiction of a largely joyless ‘one night stand’ to the eventual realisation by the main character in the song of the narrow – and narrowing – choices he faces in an economically depressed Ireland in which, for people like him, the future promises only further bleakness or, perhaps, emigration.

The song’s last verse:

On a rainy afternoon
On a gambling machine
Same old jukebox, same old tune
It’s hard to break this old routine

Everything’s black and white and grey
Living from day to day to day
It’s a fatal resignation, when there’s nothing left to hope for
In a hopeless situation

and its great chorus:

I’m not waiting at an airport
I’m not waiting at a station
I’m standing at a bus stop.
Downmarket.

In my opinion, these lines say more about the actual realities of working class life in Dublin than any other song by an Irish songwriter than I can think of.

Of course, the current economic situation in Ireland has meant that this classic song has retained almost all of its potency there and, as a result, it was a particular highlight of the reunion concert by the band which I saw just before Christmas last year. It was extraordinary to see the entire audience (not all of them first generation Blades fans) sing all of the words of the song and the atmosphere during it was even more electric than it had been for the rest of that extraordinary gig. If there was any doubt that The Blades were a supreme live band, those doubts were dispelled for me that night. A fine performance of Downmarket, albeit with very poor sound quality, can be seen here.

Of my final selections, three come from The Blades’ only studio album, The Last Man In Europe. They include the barnstorming The Last Man in Europe, the extremely prescient Those Were The Days which deals with the abuse of power by the religious orders in the Catholic schools in Ireland, and the extremely clever love song Pride where the singer repeatedly fails to use the word of the song’s title until close to the end of it. My final choice here, Impossible, with its acute portrayal of a working class married couple, was originally a Partisans song, but its inclusion in The Blades live set gives it a place on this playlist.

In a sense, The Blades are one of the great ‘what ifs’ of Irish rock music. Their failure to achieve the commercial breakthrough which their talents deserved, ultimately led the band to break up before they had fulfilled all of their early potential. Paul Cleary’s own long spells of detachment from the Irish music industry in the years after The Blades split in 1986 also meant that he never had the sustained momentum in his career to develop as a songwriter in the way that he might otherwise have done. However, after seeing The Blades live recently myself, what stood out most clearly was how well the best of their songs still stand up after thirty years and how high a standard of songwriting and musicianship the band maintained during the period when they were at their peak. It was, perhaps, fitting that it was as at a benefit concert for Phil Chevron (the founder of The Radiators From Space, The Blades’ main challengers for the title of best Irish new wave band) that Paul Cleary first got the idea of reviving The Blades. The warmth which he felt from the audience on that occasion brought home to him how high a regard many Irish rock music fans had for the band.

In my opinion, the band’s integrity, musicianship and commitment to the highest of standards in terms of live performance and songwriting make them the model against which any new Irish band should be judged.

 

Paul Cleary interviewed by Dave Fanning on RTE on the release of the double CD boxset Those Were The Days

The Blades on facebook

The Blades biography (Wikipedia)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs …

TopperPost #425

7 Comments

  1. Paul Dolan
    Mar 23, 2015

    Great read about a great band.

  2. Simon L
    Mar 23, 2015

    Love The Blades. Was an 80s mod and a big Costello fan. So The Blades made a lot of sense to me. This list is pretty much a best of, but strangers to their work should check out all of it, they’re worth it.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Mar 25, 2015

    Paul & Simon – thanks for these comments. Should also have mentioned that there is a good short documentary about Paul Cleary, made soon after the break-up of The Blades, which can be seen here.

  4. Annette H
    Mar 25, 2015

    Really nailed this synopsis of the Blades and the strength of Paul Cleary’s songwriting – great writing – I think I was at that Partisans gig in the Baggot too as I rarely missed one:) -up the front dancing! No matter how “cool” I wanted to be, could never stay seated at a Blades or Partisans live performance – the music is just too infectious.

  5. Colin Leach
    Mar 25, 2015

    Brilliant band. I saw The Blades (I think at Dublin Castle) while on tour in Ireland with the band I was in at the time, The Risk, in 1985. They were on a Rock against Racism tour I believe. Last Man In Europe had just come out and there was a real buzz about them. They were a big influence for our band and after seeing how effective the brass section was we used brass in on our line-up from thereon. Saw Paul Cleary and The Partisans years later at The Cricketers Club in London. An underrated songwriter.

  6. Wally
    Dec 25, 2015

    Thanks for this great article Andrew, I discovered this band a bit late through a mention in a mod fanzine that someone posted on line and then went back and collected a few of their recordings including the double CD that Reekus Records put out and I was amazed at how great they were and couldn’t understand why they were so neglected. It’s great that folks are starting to discover them know and that they have some new recordings.

  7. Andrew Shields
    Dec 26, 2015

    Wally, many thanks for this and, as you say, it’s great to finally see The Blades getting the kind of recognition they have long deserved. Their recent EP Smalltime is excellent and well worth checking out. Missed their recent gig at The Olympia in Dublin, but if was anywhere near as good as last year’s…

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