The revolutionary Threats’ synths-player was always challenging in the creatively-loaded, dangerous early 1980s
by Michael Mary Murphy
Stano’s first musical expressions exploded in the embryonic mayhem of Dublin’s punk movement. No other musician from that era has produced the range, quality and quantity of albums that he has. His output embodies the scorching ethic of early Dublin punk: no compromise, no acceptance of commercial considerations. The solo nature of his work hasn’t been to the exclusion of collaborations. In a way, his ability to include contributions from members of Thin Lizzy, My Bloody Valentine, Donal Lunny as well as visual artists, demonstrates the quintessential interconnectedness of the Irish art world.
Sociologists Barbara Bradby and Brian Torode laid down the marker for popular music studies in Ireland. They correctly asserted that the meaningful study of Irish music acts demanded scrutiny of their particular social and industrial surroundings. Their studies of U2 challenged the standard and lazy myths that Irish bands emerged from ‘virgin births’. This myth perpetuated the false conclusion that great acts find their way to success. Such lazy logichas contributed to a lack of comprehension about how crucial elements of Irish society actually function.
The material conditions of any industry or craft process shape the output.
Late RTE radio personality Gerry Ryan’s autobiography contains frequent salivating admiration for men he describes as “merchant princes”. This élite of property developers and politicians, he wrote, should be better compensated and respected by the people of Ireland.
Higher rewards, he felt, would eliminate corruption. He described his youth spend in their midst:
“The Haugheys had a mansion, a swimming-pool, rolling gardens, a hunting area and a lake. A whole gang of us well-heeled upper-middle-class kids used to hang around together in surroundings that exuded privilege and wealth”.
Ryan’s book describes his brief flirtation with punk in Dublin. He enjoyed this brief dalliance while a student at Trinity College. His bands Anal Crack and the Vomettes (one can only imagine the hilarity – what a laugh for his fellow law students) and the Wires performed in Trinity and another citadel of punk, the Dalkey Island Hotel.
While to Gerry Ryan and his mates Anal Crack punk was a jolly jape, to other young Irish people it was serious business. It is impossible to contemplate U2’s success without referring to the vehement, violent and vibrant scene that opened doors through which they gladly stepped. Stano epitomises that hardscrabble incremental artistic industriousness.
Stano’s life demonstrates the intriguing connections in the Irish music industry. The punk wave saw a tsunami of acts performing original music. Many had a serious siege mentality, a feeling of isolation. There was a sense that everything that had happened previously was wrong. Like any collective artistic endeavour alliances were formed and broken. One of the heaviest bands of the era had the perfect punk name – The Threat. Stano was on synths. The first bands who plunged into the idea of punk were generally musicians who had struggled in some previous pre-punk incarnation. Pub rockers, r ‘n’ b aces, glam preeners and underground dwellers all heeded the call to the new movement.
It attracted rebels and poseurs, people who wanted to dress up and spit because they read about it in the newspapers. It also attracted the curious and the genuinely inspired.
The Threat accepted the new vision of punk. Their songs uncompromisingly accepted that to be punk meant to stand outside the mainstream. That was dangerous ground in the Dublin of 1978. Their singer, Maurice Foley, played traditional Irish music growing up and developed a passing interest in folk. Later it was the beat of the tambourine that called to him.
At the height of the band’s popularity Foley simply disappeared and joined the Hare Krishnas. While many musicians threatened to walk out on their bands Foley walked out on the Threat. And who did these heaviest punks get to produce their debut single? Planxty’s Donal Lunny. From its inception the punk movement in Ireland had a link with the traditional music sphere. Albeit the progressive side of trad in Ireland. Both waltzed on the wild side from necessity.
The Threats’ debut single was recorded and the band waited for Lunny to mix it. European commitments prevented the trad man from mixing the single immediately. In the simpler and unsophisticated times that were in, the Threat used to call up to Christy Moore’s house weekly to find out when Lunny might be back to complete the single. In true punk spirit they eventually gave up and did it themselves.
Foley’s defection to Krishna put an end to the Threat in 1981 but not before the two-sided slab/slap of vinyl documented some of the progressive elements of that punk scene.
The band’s Deirdre Creed was one of Ireland’s first female bass players. Stano’s early adoption of the synthesiser placed him alongside other pioneers like Steve Averill who grafted that futuristic instrument to the local new-wave scene. Only Averill kept pace musically and visually with Stano in those complex, creative and chaotic times. Their ingenuity, application and sustained bloody-mindedness deflected the Dublin music world from complacency. They were matched in the literary sense by Dave Clifford whose fantastic fanzine Vox chronicled the best of that scene. He helped the Threat with their artwork.
Clifford poured his artistic background and entrepreneurial instincts into the short-lived label ‘Vox Enterprise’. The debut release was Stano’s first solo single, ‘Room’. While none of Stano’s output is easy listening, some of his work is exceptionally challenging. And that is one of the reasons why he is the most significant solo artist to emerge from that early Dublin punk scene. His work forces the listener to engage. It offers a stark choice: be annoyed by this or understand it. ‘ Room’ is evocative, distinctly unpunky (which makes it punky).
This was music by and for the people who took John Lydon’s invitation to break the rules. To them it was a compulsion not an option.
The average career of Dublin bands of the era was one-single long. Most never succeeded in gathering the resources necessary to leave a legacy. The three Rs that constitute the bedrock of the music industry: rehearse; record; release, were beyond the means of most. Studios were primitive and expensive.
Rehearsal rooms were often not just unfit for purpose: they were unfit for human occupation. Yet a few brave souls persevered.
While contemporaries the Virgin Prunes shrieked for attention, Stano shied away from it. His instinct was to shun the spotlight. In early Threat gigs he placed his keyboards out of eyeshot – offstage. In later shows he faced the floor, sometimes he even lay on it. An artist seeking sanctuary yet needing to express himself. To the audience he was uncomfortable viewing and completely captivating because of this.
There were lots of chancers at the time but few who would take a chance on artists and commit resources to them. Scoff Records was the nearest the Republic came to producing a response to Belfast’s Good Vibrations record label – chronicling the emerging Dublin scene, giving these bands a platform in the early eighties. Although punk it certainly is not, its guiding light, Deke O’Brien, was a veteran of the early scene when Bob Geldof needed allies in attempting (for the most part very unsuccessfully) to prise open even a handful of venues to original Irish rock acts. O’Brien brought this experience to many of the young Dublin acts who got some sort of start from a release on the label.
A compilation called ‘Strange Passion – Explorations in Irish Post Punk, DIY and Electronic Music 1980-83’ has recently gathered a number of innovative recordings together. It deserves to be heard. More importantly it deserves to be appreciated not solely for the music but for the spirit and energy, passion and creativity of those early trail-blazing acts.
We should not be nostalgic for the music scene that produced them. The mindless violence was repellent. Fights were picked like scabs by angry and frustrated young people. The conditions were Dickensian and hostility, rivalries and petty squabbles undermined most of the genius. You were more likely to encounter bands on the car ferry to Holyhead than see them play in Dublin.
The bright sparks that lit up the early eighties darkness kept many of us coming back for more. These were not celebrated poetic champions. These were (under)-dogged artists intent on expressing creativity. What would the Irish music scene look and sound like without the efforts of Stano, The Prunes, Steve Averill, the Threat and their brothers-in-arms the Peridots and Chant! Chant! Chant!; or without Dave Clifford and his revolutionary Vox fanzine? And where are their heirs?
STANO : In the Place Where You Are
extracts from interview/article by Joe Jackson in hot press 23/3/94
Think about direction, wonder why... its eleven years since STANO released his debut album Content To Write In I Dine Weathercraft. Despite his genuine originality and dedication to his art over the intervening years, he remains one of Irelands most enigmatic performers, more appreciated on the continent than in his homeland. Stano knows enough about music to realise that rock too has finally caught up on the other arts, entering what soul-diva Shara Nelson recently described as it's "po'mo' (post-modern) phase." Dance, rap and hip-hop all question notions of fixed space and continuous time in the same way that Joyce redefined the novel with stream-of-consciousness writing and Schoenberg restructured classical music on a system of twelve tones instead of the age old harmonic scales. Likewise, if Irish rock has recently shifted into a po' mo' mode, courtesy of high profile groups like U2 and Fatima Mansions, there can be little doubt that Stano himself was at the forefront of this movement more than a decade ago, when he released his debut album, the wonderfully titled 'Content to Write I Dine Weathercraft'. "From the beginning," Stano reflects "when someone wrote an article on me and said I was 'obviously influenced by Stockhausen' I didn't even know who Stockhausen was - though I do now, of course. But with painters, it was different. I've always been interested in people like Picasso and Dali and Turner - at least since my late teens. Before that, growing up in a working class area of Dublin you'd be seen as a bit "soft" if you said you'd any interest in art."But my original love was for poetry after a teacher in Coolock praised me for my writing when I was 10 or 11 and put one of my poems in the school magazine. But it took punk to rekindle my interest in self-expression at that level. The whole ethos of music then was 'be what you are, do what you want to do and to hell with anyone who tells you otherwise'." "Dylan is my favourite artist of all time because listening to his best songs is like getting pulled into a painting. If you're open to the whole experience you really have no control over where he takes you, where you go. And I always loved the way Dylan would layer images upon images upon images until he'd break you down and bring you round to his way of looking at the world." Dylan's critics, on the other hand, also describe his mid 60's surrealist soundscapes as inaccessible, with imagery that is open to only the author himself. How does Stano respond when he sees similarly derisive criticism of album titles such as Content to Write In I Dine Weathercraft. "It annoys me, at times, because, to me, like Dylan's best songs, nature itself is a random force, pulling things together that don't make 'sense' in the normal way," he argues. "And I love combinations of fun words like 'I Dine' and 'Weathercraft' which are puns on 'iodine' and 'witchcraft'. But there also is a unifying force underneath, a logic behind it all. That's why surrealistic art is more real to me than something that looks just like a photograph. And it's why I love Picasso's work. When he breaks up a human face and shows it from many angles, that's far more interesting, and truthful, to me than a straight, figurative drawing. "It's the same with regard to music, and not just in relation to the words to a song. The 'meaning' often is in the loops, the samples, the guitar lines, the mix. And I often think the only people who will find my work 'difficult' are those who think that a song is like a narrative poem and that all it says is what is said in the words. That's not how I work. And the real thrill of songwriting is knowing what fragments to choose so that you don't give everything away, don't ruin the mystery. Is there a sense in which Stano s is making music just for himself and doesn't give a fuck whether or not people relate to it? "Well, to be totally honest with you I don't really care if they relate to it, or not!" he says, laughing. "And I don't think any real artists create with an eye to the market, or create for the public. I, physically, can't do that and find the whole idea repulsive That said, I know my music can be sold and could be quite successful, on its own terms. "I think if you go back to people like Joyce and Beckett, the true nature of Irish art is that we are more European than English, or American, though that's the kind of stuff that obviously sells better here, with regards to music. But, sure, I will happily admit that I don't think of markets when I'm making music. I do just think of remaining true to myself first and foremost and letting everything else grow from there. That's why I'm lucky that now, in Hue Records, I'm in partnership with two people who do really understand my music and let me do whatever I want to do And I really think that the interest already shown in my new album has set me up for the next. STANO TAKES A STROLL THROUGH HIS BACK CATALOGUE CONTENT TO WRITE IN I DINE WEATHERCRAFT: ~This album was done mostly with Michael O'Shea. He's a guy who made his own instruments and, sadly, died a few years ago. But this was begun in 1981 and finished in 1983 and songs like ~Seance of Kondalike' and ~ A Dead Rose~ have instruments like sitar, African tongue basses, and these square boxes Michael used to make up, with springs and glass on them. On the other hand, 'Out of the Dark, Into the Dawn' I did with Roger Doyle on grand piano. 'Blue Guide' has a lot of loops and although some of the songs have no verse chorus structures, they're pretty accessible. Some are,like, two pages of Iyric’s that I spoke over the music, which is where a lot of those songs come from. "I really remember we had so much fun making this. I remember being in a room with Binti and they were playing the piano and I'd finished reciting my poem and had nothing else to do so l picked up a Christmas tree that was in the studio and fucked it around the room! Binti was saying 'go on, go on' and at the end you hear Vinnie Murphy saying 'Jesus, me hand is bolloxed, will we stop?' And I start laughing and walk out the door and close it and that's how the song ends. Another time, after I'd read a book on singing which said that your forehead, nose and face resonates as you sing, I glued a mic onto my face and got an amazing vocal sound! How's that for abstract art? (laughs) Maybe it'll catch on at the Eurovision! SEDUCING DECADENCE IN MORNING TREECRASH: This was made in 1984 and released in 1986. There was always that kind to gap between the completion, and the release of my albums. Even Only was made three years before it was released. But Seducing Decadence had songs like my tribute to Charlie Chaplin, who is another one of my idols. "Musically on this one I pushed the guitar end of it more, and the loops. It's also got a dance track, as has the first album though people are now saying I've suddenly become interested in dance music! Even on the first album I used the same drum machine that is used in hip-hop now But when I listen to albums like Seducing Decadence now~ particularly tracks like 'Hayley' and 'Cry Across the Sea' I can hear the evolution of my whole sound and how it leads directly to Wreckage." DAPHNE WILL BE BOBN AGAIN & ONLY "I actually started Only a month or so after finishing Daphne~ so I definitely see the two albums as interlinked Daphne is totally instrumental. It was done on the Fairlight, with dub bass~ drum machine~ Gregorian chants~ samples of spoons hitting glasses and screams on it. And a lot of it is influenced by the classical music I was listening to at the time~ from Beethoven to Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky. I think part of the reason my music confuses some people is that I will work with classical musicians when I'm doing stuff like this~ or jazz musicians if I'm doing jazz. "I used to hate the saxophone because I had this image of it as just a rock instrument playing basic licks. But then I met Richie Buckley and realised he could take it into another realm. As with those painters we spoke about earlier~ and other great jazz musicians like Miles Davis, it's the person's spirit that defines the quality of the music. And Richie is a classic example of this. And I'd hope that something of my own spirit comes across in all this music "Only~ was more rock-oriented, working with your basic guitar, bass and drums. WRECKAGE - TRACK BY TRACK (ALMOST) 'Pearls': "This started out with a bass line by Mark Young and I basically wrote around that, shaping it into a heavy-duty pop song. The Iyric is a love song but I don't include the Iyrics on albums anymore because people isolate the words and reduce the song to what the Iyric says, which is not the way I work at all In 'Pearls' what the drum machine and loops and guitars slowed down and played backwards are saying is just as important as the words. That's what music means to me. 'Bleeding Horse': "I did this with Colm O'Ciosaigh, from My Bloody Valentine. And, already people have said they never heard a song like this before. Every.thing you hear is guitar guitar sampled, slowed-down and played back If you play that track in clubs it will tear the walls down and that's the effect we wanted. 'Red Blue Green': "This is a punk song, which, again, came from Mark's bass line to begin with, yet ends up with guitar layers that are straight out of Hendrix. 'Land Slips The Mind': "This came from a song on L's album, called 'Night-time' I brought in a cello player who played eight tracks of cello and I put those tracks on a DAT, took them home, and found that within the four minutes of that song there was actually one and a half seconds of the eight cellos working together. I sampled those eight cellos and put that through eight tracks of distortion and that's the intro to the songs That, then is followed by a hip-hop beat, provided by one of Mark's bass lines played backwards. On top of that I took a scream from an old Hollywood movie and I screamed back at that. '1000 To Now': "I wrote this for a film that was shown on RTE and UTV a few years ago. 'Steps Into': "This has a techno drumbeat which was 120 beats per minute and I slowed it down to 8 beats per minute, the slowest a drum machine can go In the background we also had an effect unit which the guitar player was playing and every time he took the plug out it would make an electronic noise so all the guitar work on it is us making that noise and pressing different numbers on the effect unit. 'Distance': "This is another song I did with Colm. Mark my bass player can't physically listen to It. He said it does his head in, and someone else told me the same thing last night. 'Whatever Way You Are': "This started off with loops and then we got Richie Buckley in to play sax and the whole feeling, I hope, is like 1955 in some jazz club, with Miles Davis. I even sampled the sound saxophone players make just as they are about to blow, and I put that on the background.