The Radiators from Space

TrackSingle / Album
Television ScreenChiswick S10
EnemiesTV Tube Heart
Sunday WorldTV Tube Heart
Prison BarsTV Tube Heart
Million Dollar HeroGhostown
Johnny JukeboxGhostown
They're Looting In The TownGhostown
Kitty RickettsGhostown
Song Of The Faithful DepartedGhostown
Under Clery's ClockChiswick NS 128
Bonus Phil Chevron Solo Track
The Captains And The KingsImp Records IMP 002

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Radiators playlist

Radiators photo 2

The Radiators from Space

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

I first started paying serious attention to the music papers in late 1976/early 1977. At the beginning this involved reading through my older brother’s copy of the NME (which he bought every week) scrupulously from cover to cover. Later, when the Irish equivalent, Hot Press, appeared on the scene in June 1977, I began buying it and this doubled the reading workload each week. Indeed, I felt obliged to plough through both, even down to reading the ads for gigs which I knew well I would never be attending.

In this way, names like the Marquee, Dingwalls, the Vortex and the Roxy began to take on an almost mythical significance for me. This was also just around the time that punk had broken through to even the more mainstream sections of the music press. It had brought with it a new sense of excitement and innovation, one which had managed to reach as far as the west of Ireland.

Looking back, it now seems clear to me that the first references I saw to the Radiators at that time must have been in the NME. More than likely, this was probably an ad for one of their early singles. It might also possibly have been a reference to one of the many gigs that they played in London from September 1977 onwards. What was striking about this – for me at any rate – was the fact this was an Irish band that was regularly appearing at those venues which had previously seemed so exotic. Even more significantly, it also soon became clear that this was a group which was intent on singing about distinctively Irish themes. Their songs were also steeped in a deep knowledge and understanding of Dublin urban life. At that point, it was still very rare to see Irish artists mentioned in such papers and those who were (Van Morrison, Rory Gallagher, Phil Lynott) were considerably older than the Radiators were. It’s hard to capture in retrospect how refreshing the emergence of the band was at that time.

Radiators photo 1

The Radiators (1979) l to r: Mark Megaray, Steve Rapid, Philip Chevron, Pete Holidai, Jimmy Crashe

Later, Hot Press became a keen champion of their music and, in particular, of the merits of their classic second album, Ghostown. Over the years, it has been widely identified as, perhaps, the great ‘lost’ Irish rock album. The question which arises naturally from this, of course, is who were the Radiators and why were they so significant for the history of Irish rock music?

The group itself gradually evolved in the course of 1975. Three of its founding members – Steve Rapid on vocals and Pete Holidai and Billy Morley on guitars – had been involved in an earlier proto-punk band, Greta Garbage and the Trashcans (an early track of theirs can be heard here). However, it was not until the young Phil Chevron arrived on the scene in May of the following year that the group began to take on its classic shape. Initially, he took the place of the recently departed Morley on lead guitar. After some rapid cycling through different members, eventually the first settled line-up of the band emerged with the addition of Mark Megaray on bass and Jimmy Crashe on drums. At this time, the group also changed its name from the short-lived title, the Hell Razors, to the Radiators (From Space).

Regular gigs around Dublin followed, at venues like The Baggot Inn and Moran’s Hotel, both in or near the city centre. Their short, sharp high energy songs – which were strongly influenced by American bands like the MC5 and New York Dolls – also led to them being linked by association with the ‘punk’ musical revolution then taking place in England. At the same time, the association this generated led the English record label, Chiswick, to sign the band in November 1976.

As a result, it was on that label that their first single, Television Screen, appeared in April 1977. I’ve chosen that single version for inclusion, as it has a raw energy and verve which the more polished later version included on their debut album TV Tube Heart – as good as that is – cannot compete. Like several of the other songs that they wrote around this time, Television Screen was an attack on the deadening conformity and alienation created by the contemporary media. Along with briefly topping the alternative chart in Sounds in the UK, Television Screen also had the distinction of being the first punk song to reach a national chart, getting to as high as No.17 on the Irish charts in June 1977.

Probably the pivotal event in the Radiators’ early history – and the one which led to their own subsequent ‘trial’ by media – was when a fan was stabbed to death during a ‘punk festival’ that they played at the University College Dublin campus at Belfield later in the same month. Among the other bands that played that day were the Undertones and another of the early Dublin punk bands, the Vipers. Following the stabbing, several Irish newspapers made a concerted attempt to link it with what they described as the inherently ‘violent’ nature of punk music. For example, the Irish Independent claimed at the time that a “rough element had invaded” the gig because of the Radiators’ presence there. It also suggested that this group had tried “to imitate the frenzied scenes of pandemonium which characterised Punk rock sessions” in the UK. Despite the fact that many of the stories published in this vein were fabricated, the press coverage of the Belfield stabbing had a seriously negative effect on the band’s career.

Following this, many of the group’s concerts around Ireland were either banned or called off at short notice. In many ways, the Irish media seemed intent on extending the air of moral panic which had surrounded the Sex Pistols in the United Kingdom to the fledgling punk scene in their own country. The enforced hiatus which this media campaign caused, did, however, give the Radiators the opportunity to write many of the songs which appeared on their debut album, TV Tube Heart, which Chiswick Records released in October 1977. Although it was somewhat uneven, the best songs on it were of a very high quality indeed. Many people at the time saw my first choice from it, the stingingly powerful Enemies, as an attack on the NME for its failure to sufficiently support the band in the aftermath of the Belfield ‘incident’. It also gave a clear indication of Chevron’s growing prowess as a songwriter.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, both of my other selections, Sunday World and Prison Bars, are attacks on the complacency and stifling conformity of the Irish media. The first is a satiric portrait of the trashy character of the recently established Sunday paper of that name, which was one of the first tabloids ever to appear on the Irish market:

In some ways, it is a characteristic ‘punk’/new wave record but it also includes some surprisingly melodic harmonies which served as a pointer to the band’s later work. Prison Bars is another excellent Chevron song, which deals with the themes of alienation/boredom which run like a spine through the rest of the songs on the group’s first record.

While TV Tube Heart was a strong first album, it was clear that the band were still in the process of developing their own distinctive voice. With their second album Ghostown, though, the Radiators triumphantly proved that they had achieved that objective. While the band recorded it in 1978, due to financial pressures Chiswick did not release it until the following year. Philip Chevron’s talents as a networker were, however, displayed by the fact that Tony Visconti (best known at the time for his work with David Bowie, one of the group’s main musical heroes) produced it.

In many respects, Ghostown was an extraordinarily ambitious album for the band – which dropped the ‘(From Space)’ part of their name at this time to become known simply as the Radiators – to make at that point in their career. In essence, it was a concerted attack on the hypocrisies, evasions and outright lies which underlay the existing establishment in Ireland in both Church and state. As Thom Hickey has put it in an excellent piece on Phil Chevron’s musical career (which can be read here), at that time, society there often appeared “ossified and coldly indifferent to all those who in any sense lived lives which crossed the borders of Catholic propriety”. What set the band’s approach apart, was the fact that their assault on the old guard in Ireland was steeped in a deep knowledge of the literary, political and social history of the country. As a result, the songs on it contain frequent references to the works of authors like James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, Sean O’Casey and James Plunkett. In a similar way, its very prescient criticisms of the Irish Roman Catholic Church are, like those earlier ones by Joyce, informed by a keen knowledge of its hymns and liturgy. Taken as a whole, the record also represents an updated take on Joyce’s claim that he hoped to use “the reality” of his own experience to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race”.

Alongside this wider ambition, the album was also one of the first by a punk band to embrace a more layered and musically adventurous approach. In this regard, the band later felt that the record’s delayed release meant that this innovative approach did not receive the credit it deserved. Generally speaking, the songs on it were far more melodic and the arrangements on them far more intricate than had been the case in the past. Over the previous year, the band had also become much tighter musically due to its regular gigging in England. At the same time, their enforced absence from Ireland (largely a result of the fact that they found it very difficult to get bookings for gigs there) gave them the requisite distance and perspective which enabled them to write the type of songs which appeared on Ghostown.

If this description makes the album sounds rather bleak and depressing, it is in fact anything but that. Instead, it shows a committed and dynamic group at the peak of their powers. For example, its opening track, Million Dollar Hero, written by Pete Holidai (who, along with Chevron, emerged as the chief creative force within the band after Steve Rapid left during the recording of TV Tube Heart) is a power pop classic, which should have been a hit.

My second choice, Johnny Jukebox, is another driving rock and roll influenced song, which introduces a kind of quintessential Dublin pragmatist who has no time for the type of romantic myths which underlay the formation of the independent Southern Irish state (no history book romances/ and no more backward glances/ I guess we took our chances/ take out your harps and dance).

My next pick, They’re Looting In The Town, uses the Dublin Lockout of 1913 as a lens through which to explore the hypocrisies of middle-class Irish nationalists. While they constantly spoke about the ‘nobility’ of the Irish people, at that time the majority of them refused to lift a finger to help the striking tram car workers who were ultimately defeated through the co-ordinated action by their employers.

From an early age, Phil Chevron had been keenly interested in both musical theatre and cabaret. Indeed, his father, Phillip Ryan, had close theatrical associations and had written biographies of a number of leading Irish music hall performers like the famous comedian, Jimmy O’Dea, and the singer and entertainer, Noel Purcell. As a teenager, Chevron also became friendly with Agnes Bernelle, a German émigré and cabaret singer who had fled to England from Berlin in 1936. She eventually moved to Ireland in the early 1960s. Having already developed a keen interest in the music of Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht, Chevron helped to encourage Bernelle to return to performing. This led to her recording the 1977 album, Bernelle On Brecht And…, which he produced.

With Kitty Ricketts on Ghostown (which Bernelle also recorded as a single in 1979), Phil brought together that interest in cabaret/theatre music with his love for the work of James Joyce. The character of Kitty herself appears in the ‘Nighttown’ section of “Ulysses”. As in many of the other songs on Ghostown, she is used to point out the distance between the professed virtues of ‘Official’ Ireland and the realities of life there (the decent folk on All Souls Night/ light penny candles for the sweet repose/ easy fortunes for fortune tellers/ quick abortions in dingy cellars).

My final choice from the album, Song Of The Faithful Departed, is one of Philip Chevron’s greatest ever songs. To quote Thom Hickey, it is “a compendious song which, without strain … invokes the literary, religious and historical crosses and legacies that Ireland stumblingly shouldered in the 20th century”. From its great opening lines – this graveyard hides a million secrets/ and the trees know more than they can tell – lines which have only gained in resonance over the years, the lyric runs through a series of brilliant images and literary references, which work together to undercut and undermine the ‘official’ version of Irish history. Here’s a live performance of the song on TV, not great quality but one of the few clips that remain.

Sadly, however, despite the sustained excellence of Ghostown (which is nowadays widely recognised as one of the great Irish rock albums), its commercial failure led to the break up of the band.

Following the demise of the group, Chevron remained in London, where he worked for a time in the Rock On record shop. It was there that he first met Elvis Costello. With his usual flair for making the most of such connections, he managed to persuade Costello to produce his great version of Brendan Behan’s song, The Captains And The Kings. Behan had included it in his 1958 play, “The Hostage”, where it serves as a satirical commentary on the failings of British Imperialism. As this is one of my favourite of Chevron’s records, I have included it as a bonus track:

For comparison’s sake, here is Behan’s version of the song.

During his time at Rock On, Chevron also became friendly with Shane MacGowan who worked in a different branch of the same store. This friendship eventually led to his joining MacGowan’s band, the Pogues in 1984, first as a temporary replacement for Jem Finer on banjo, and later, when Finer returned, as a regular member of the band. (His time with that group which continued until 1994 will be discussed in more detail in a later Toppermost.) It was during this period that the Radiators reformed briefly to play an AIDS benefit in Dublin in 1987. Chevron wrote Under Clery’s Clock specifically for that gig and the band subsequently recorded it as a single, which was released in 1989. It remains one of his most personal and most affecting songs.

The song combines a beautiful Spanish-flavoured melody with a powerfully poetic lyric. In Thom Hickey’s words, it describes with “heart rending beauty … a situation where a young gay man struggles to find dignity and love in a world which stonily refuses to admit that love has never been limited to that between men and women”. It is difficult, in retrospect, to describe either the originality or the bravery which Chevron showed in writing such a song at a time when there was still a huge amount of prejudice against gay people in Ireland.

Along with this, ‘Under Clery’s’ is also one of the great ‘Dublin songs’. Everyone who has ever lived in Dublin knows where Clery’s department store used to stand, and the fact that beneath its clock was a regular meeting place for couples in the city. This gives the song an immediate and powerful sense of place, which is given an added resonance by the great lines, the next bus to An Lár/ is his for sure/ ten minutes more I know/ will bring my love to me. ‘An Lár’ is the Irish for ‘the city’ and is regularly seen on buses to the centre of the city which is where Clery’s store used to stand.

Although Chevron and Holidai were to reform the Radiators again on a number of occasions in the 2000s – and they were to make some fine music in those years – these later tracks on Trouble Pilgrims (2006) didn’t quite carry the same power and emotional punch as their earlier material. Their 4th album, Sound City Beat (2012), is an affectionate tribute to the Irish beat groups of the 60s, an album of cover versions with no self-composed titles.

In their peak years, however, the Radiators from Space made some of the greatest rock music ever produced in Ireland. In that time, Philip Chevron also proved himself a songwriter who, at his best, was of the very first rank.

 

Philip Chevron remembered by fellow musicians on The Works (2013)

 

Philip Chevron (1957–2013)

 

Radiators photo 3

 

The Radiators from Space 1976-2013 – official website

The Radiators from Space facebook

Pete Holidai official website

IrishRock.org – The Radiators (from Space)

A conversation with Philip Chevron on Come Here To Me: Dublin Life & Culture (2012)

Paul Cleary of the Blades sings Enemies at the Philip Chevron Testimonial Concert at Olympia Theatre Dublin (24th August 2013)

Official Website of Trouble Pilgrims (Steve Rapid, Pete Holidai, Tony St Ledger, Johnny Bonnie, Bren Lynott)

The Radiators from Space biography (AllMusic)

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 ….

Editor’s Choice (by way of a teaser for Andrew’s forthcoming toppermost on the Pogues) – here’s Philip Chevron singing his brilliant song Thousands Are Sailing (from If I Should Fall From Grace With God) – “and in Brendan Behan’s footsteps I danced up and down the street …”

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Blades, David Bowie, Rory Gallagher, Van Morrison, New York Dolls, Sex Pistols, Thin Lizzy, Undertones

TopperPost #789

4 Comments

  1. Paul
    May 18, 2019

    Fantastic review. Lets hope the 40th anniversary of Ghostown is suitably celebrated this August.

  2. Thom Hickey
    May 18, 2019

    Very well done. Delighted to be mentioned in such a comprehensive and empathetic survey of a genuinely important group.

  3. Andrew Shields
    May 20, 2019

    Paul & Thom – thanks for the kind words. And, yes, it would be great to see a proper reissue of ‘Ghostown’ this year.

  4. David Lewis
    May 22, 2019

    The Irish band of this period that I think needs to be mentioned is the Boomtown Rats. They had the bigger hits, and I suspect were seen as the heirs to Lizzy, etc… both Scotland and Ireland were producing excellent stuff at this time. (Always have)

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