This coming week sees the latest live outing for The Everlasting Yeah, at Putney’s Half Moon. Meanwhile, this month marks the 30th anniversary of the recording of Manic Pop Thrill, the debut LP by That Petrol Emotion, the band that gave rise to the Yeah. Reason enough for a new epic writewyattuk article on both bands, with The Undertones thrown in as a bonus, starring Ciaran McLaughlin, who has featured with all three outfits.
There’s a recording out there on the worldwide web from one of the landmark gigs in my life, pivotal not because it was genuinely plate-shifting in a seismic sense but as it was the first time That Petrol Emotion made their way on to my old patch.
It was recorded in November 1985 at the very first Buzz Club, at that stage based at The Agincourt, Camberley, this punter already buzzing about the London-Irish headliners, having first caught them five months earlier in the capital, avidly following their progress since via the NME gig guide and word of mouth around town.
I soon got to love the support too, Wolverhampton’s Mighty Lemon Drops, and this was also something of a landmark in the sense that your scribe – newly-turned 18 – soon became a Buzz Club regular as this happening moved across the Surrey/Hampshire border to Aldershot’s West End Centre. But that’s another story. Instead, let’s concentrate on that recording (with a link here). It’s only one song, a single, It’s a Good Thing, but takes me right back, not least hearing lead singer Steve Mack’s introductory banter.
“You’re probably wondering why we’re so jolly. Well, this is our last date on a tour that’s taken us all over the world. We’ve been to hundreds of continents. This is our final gig. We’ve made it big, now we’re going to quit while we’re ahead!”
I can’t imagine for one moment I believed the chirpy American frontman at the time. This wasn’t so much the final TPE gig as maybe the last of their first year together, and it would be eight and a half years before emotional farewells in Clapham and Dublin spelled the end, as documented on impressive swansong album Final Flame.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, for when I recently spoke to Ciaran McLaughlin, singing-drummer and songwriter extraordinaire of The Everlasting Yeah and That Petrol Emotion, we started with a little geographic trip down Memory Lane, by way of my Guildford roots and talk of a town a mere 12 miles to the North West as the crow flies, best known for Graham Parker, The Members and … erm … Bros.
“Of course! The Buzz Club! I don’t know why, but I remember getting to that gig really vividly. It was a Sunday night. I really enjoyed that night. I think it’s the only time I’ve ever been in Camberley. It was run by this girl involved with another band …”
That’ll be friend of this blog Jo Bartlett, whose Go! Service supported the Petrols upstairs at The Enterprise, Chalk Farm, in the summer of ’85 (my second-ever TPE gig), then of Bluetrain, Here Comes Jordan, It’s Jo & Danny, and most recently Kodiak Island, the co-creator of the Green Man Festival in South Wales and a singer-songwriter of some note.
Speaking of the Buzz Club, I missed it but understand the Petrols played the very last one in March 1993, supported by Molly Half Head.
“Do you know what? That’s a blank! But sometime for no particular reason, some gigs stick in your mind, whereas others may as well never have happened!”
That old ‘all the towns roll into one’ scenario. To quote the 1969 coach-trip film, If it’s Tuesday, This Must be Belgium.
“Kind of. But I remember playing Brussels the last time. I’m nearly 99 per cent sure we stayed in the Molenbeek area, back in the news of late. We were put up in this funny little digs next to the venue, probably part of it. We all stayed in this big dorm, about eight of us in a room, with bunk beds and stuff.”
As regular readers here will know, the first time I saw the Petrols was in June 1985 at the Pindar of Wakefield, King’s Cross, the night my brother made drunken small talk with a passing Andy Kershaw as he left.
“We did a live broadcast on his Saturday afternoon show on the old Radio 1 which went out live, as opposed to a recorded Peel session. We were really nervous. I think he was in Broadcasting House while we were in the Maida Vale studio. I’m not sure if anyone recorded it. I know we didn’t.
“I don’t remember much about the Pindar of Wakefield, but remember another gig in that neck of the woods, at New Merlin’s Cave. I remember it even better because it was the first place we saw the band Stump, who I loved. I walked in and the first song they did was Kitchen Table. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing – all these kind of weird rhythms. I thought, ‘My God!’ I was in heaven. That was the night we asked them to support us on the Manic Pop Thrill tour.”
Of course, we recently lost Stump’s lead singer, the wonderfully-eccentric Mick Lynch.
“Yeah, Mick was in a bad way for a long time. Really sad. A real shame.”
On a brighter note, I witnessed many more great early TPE gigs around London in those pre-album days – the Boston Arms, the Cricketers, the Electric Ballroom, the Sir George Robey, Bay 63 …
“Did you ever chat to us back in the day? Were we ever rude to you?”
I’d had this conversation with fellow Everlasting Yeah pair Damian O’Neill and Raymond Gorman, but let Ciaran know we mostly kept it to respectful nods, foolishly thinking it best to keep our heroes at arm’s length. Wrong really, but there you go.
“Well, here we are now! And it is funny how things come around again.”
Ciaran mentioned supporting The Long Ryders in Guildford, and that’s where I interviewed TPE and Undertones legend John O’Neill for my fanzine, Captains Log, backstage at the Civic Hall on 1988’s End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues tour, one of John’s last shows before returning to Derry. Raymond was missing at the time, not in a good place health-wise by all accounts. As it turns out, nor were band relations.
“Oh my God, that was the worst time.”
That wasn’t the impression I got at the time. John – Damian’s brother – seemed optimistic, suggesting that while he was leaving, the band was in good hands, not least with Ciaran making an impact as a songwriter.
“I don’t think we felt like that at the time. Not at all. When John left we had a few songs, and I had one in particular we played at the Town and Country Club, I think. Melody Maker reviewed it, saying it sounded like Fields of the Nephilim. I was like, ‘Right, that’s it! It’s finished!”
“But in desperation I went away and wrote Scum Surfin’ and Blue to Black, thinking we’ve got to do something here. And Raymond had written Abandon. We brought them to the same rehearsal, not knowing we were going to. I remember that quite vividly, thinking, ‘Yes! We’re on to something here!”
Despite all that, I love that Roli Mosiman-produced third album, not least the mix of styles – there were plenty of John’s songs, but a few by the others too, including Ciaran.
“Well, I’d still stand up for The Price of my Soul. I think that was a good song.”
The more dance-oriented material was coming through too, like Groove Check and Here It Is … Take It! And there was the Ciaran-penned single Genius Move before that.
“It’s all water under the bridge, but in retrospect would have been better if we put Genius Move on the album. That would have tied it together a bit. It was a bit too all over the place.”
Maybe, but I happen to like all over the place sometimes.
“Well, our intentions were entirely honourable and our hearts were in the right place, but we lost a lot of momentum on that album and never got it back. When Chemicrazy came out we knew it was a great record, but we’d already lost all that ground. The Stone Roses and all that had happened in the meantime, so it was just like … ‘Forget it!’”
“At the time I didn’t think I did, but in retrospect I think I very much did. That’s certainly one of the reasons I wasn’t involved with The Wavewalkers. I just didn’t want to be involved. I was really quite soured by it all.”
I know where you’re coming from, but in the scheme of things it was more or less a decade, the whole journey, and The Beatles barely lasted that. It was a reasonable stint.
“I know, but just felt we had a lot more to offer. We actually thought when Brendan (Kelly) joined the band that we were playing better than ever. We just couldn’t understand it. It seemed the more we put in, the less we were getting out of it at that stage. And when it actually came to it… yeah, I was pretty bitter about it all really.
“Sometimes when I read about it all I still get a bit hacked off. What was the problem? Why couldn’t we sell any records?”
I’d taken my eye off the ball by then, moving away to Lancashire around then. It’s only listening back now that I realise how good those last two albums were. But soon the world was going mad for BritPop, and you weren’t seen as part of that – victims of timing maybe.
“Yeah, we were in the wrong place at the wrong time. I sometimes wonder if we’d kept going another couple of years whether things would have turned. We were writing songs like Hey Venus, not a million miles away from what was charting around then. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. These things happen, and you’ve just got to kind of move on.”
Ciaran’s keen to draw a line there, but I’m not quite done and bring up the related subject of peer recognition. I recall reading how Paul Weller loved Blur’s Modern Life is Rubbish and how that made me listen closer to them. Maybe if Damon Albarn had similarly remarked on That Petrol Emotion as an influence, that may have helped attract a new audience.
“Well, we’d hear on the grapevine – being in a music industry where lots of people know each other – that Kevin Shields was a really big fan, and Graham Coxon was a really big fan. We were thinking, ‘Someone say something in the press!’ But no one ever did. Anyway …”
We leave it there, instead talking about Camberwell-based Ciaran’s arrival from Derry in 1984.
“I was actually here three months before I joined the band. I went to see Damian O’Neill and Mickey Bradley, who after The Undertones split up formed a band called Eleven…”
I laugh there. It seems like every interview I do regarding TPE or The Undertones drifts to Eleven at some point. Everyone seems to want to wash their hands of them. But I liked them, having seen them at The Marquee a couple of times that summer and enjoying their Peel session.
“Well, I’m just a bystander, guv! I went to see them in Dingwalls that July while doing voluntary work in North London. It was there that a friend told me John and Raymond were forming a band and maybe looking for a drummer. That’s when I wrote to John, and that’s how it all started to happen.”
That’s as good a time as any to mention Ciaran’s illustrious past in The Undertones. You knew that, right? In fact, he features in Mickey Bradley’s excellent band memoir, Teenage Kicks: My Life as an Undertone (with a review here). Has Ciaran read the book yet?
“Not yet. I will though.”
There are a nice couple of mentions of you.
“Well, that’s good. I think the first time I played with The Undertones I must have been 15.”
Shall I tell you what Mickey’s written? Then you can tell me if it’s right.
“Go on then … lies, damned lies!”
“All true so far!”
I’m guessing that, like Damian came in for older brother Vinny in The Undertones, Linus stepped in for big brother Eugene in The Corner Boys. Is that right?
“Well, Eugene was a good friend of The Undertones.”
Was that how your band got the invite?
“Well, the full story is … in 1978 when Teenage Kicks was released, Billy (Doherty) left The Undertones, with the band quite public about the fact that they all left at one point …”
Except your Everlasting Yeah and TPE compatriate Damian, I believe. But carry on.
“Billy left when that first single came out, but before it was played by John Peel. In the meantime they advertised in our local newspaper for a drummer. They didn’t name themselves. They just said, ‘Derry punk band seeks drummer’. And apparently I was the only applicant!
“I was 14 or 15 and went for – in adverted commas – ‘an interview’ with John up in the O’Neill house. It was actually Linus who told me, ‘You’ve got the job’, which was brilliant! But in the meantime Peel had picked up on Teenage Kicks and Billy sensibly rejoined!
I got to know them through that though. Derry’s a small place, and there weren’t a lot of people at that time going to see The Undertones. I’m not even sure if I knew who the band were. I’d been drumming about a year and was desperate to be in a band. ‘Derry punk band’? I thought, ‘That’s up my street!’ At the time The Undertones were reviled in Derry, because most of the population didn’t like punk music. But it got me in contact with them, and I played the Orchard Gallery with them again in 1980 then went on their European tour.
“I was just about to start university and it just messed me up. I didn’t want to be there anymore. Everyone else was dead excited but I hated it – I wanted to be in a band! I was in Belfast four years – studying English literature – and found it like a prison sentence, I just wanted to be out and in a band.”
There’s footage of Ciaran with The Undertones, a televised performance in Paris recorded for Chorus at Theatre Le Palace in 1980, released on Salvo’s 2013 CD/DVD package An Introduction To. Not as if you see much of him.
“That’s me on drums – I’m just sitting at the back, like a goalkeeper! That was such a blast. I was 17 then, and it was so exciting.”
Was there ever a feeling that Billy might not come back at that stage?
“I think Billy probably hated my guts for several years, because I was always kind of there as a possible replacement! But it never happened.”
A bit of a rush-goalie?
“Exactly, but I ended up in the Petrols anyway, so in some ways it all worked out.”
I think Mickey refers to you as the ‘hero of the hour’.
“Oh, that’s good. I look forward to reading it even more now! I’ll always remember that first time more than any other. They must have been apprehensive as well, having more or less asked me out of the crowd to play. It could’ve gone either way, I guess.
“After a few songs we were doing (She’s a) Runaround from the first album, and there’s this little instrumental break in the middle which comes to a drum solo, going around the kit to set up for the final verse. There must have been apprehension in the band that I wasn’t going to get this right, maybe. But it passed off without incident and as soon as I had the downbeat on the cymbal Mickey turned around and gave me a huge grin, as if to say, ‘This is going to be great, isn’t it?’ And indeed it was! I’ll never forget that. I was only a kid, and they were my favourite band at the time.”
You weren’t far off Damian’s age.
“I’m only a couple of years younger, but he’d already played in the band, made records and been on tour, while I was just stepping out of the crowd. It may as well have been decades, really, when you’re that age. That was an evening of around seven or eight bands, yet I played in four, including The Undertones! They came up to me earlier and Mickey said, ‘Do you know our songs?’ I said, ‘Of course’. Then, ‘Do you want to play?’ A great moment!”
Fast forward a bit and back to the Petrols, and this month marks the 30th anniversary of the recording of Manic Pop Thrill. I know I was excited when I first heard the album, knowing most of the songs live. In fact, on St Valentine’s Night, 1986, having snapped up their first singles, Keen and V2, and devoured two Peel sessions, I was at Hammersmith Clarendon for their last date before they headed to South Wales to record that debut. But what did Ciaran think of the finished record when it came out?
I had that thrill of hearing songs I knew so well on record, not far off the way how I imagined them. So there was a sense of ownership for me, let alone you.
“Yeah, it was so exciting, and it was the first time we’d worked with a producer, Hugh Jones, and he got it completely. We had a tight group of friends around us who came to all the gigs, had their own opinions and often told us them … in quite a forthright manner. And when we brought the record back to our flat they were all so excited by it. It was such fun to make. Everything about making Manic Pop Thrill was a pleasure.
“We recorded it live, pretty much, with a small PA. Most records now involve overdubs and so on. But Hugh had the old school nous to be able to set it up, hiring this PA. So we all played together and basically it went down live. I’m sure that’s why it sounds the way it does. There were microphones there, and also down a narrow hallway so he could get reverb. Nowadays they’re all apps, but the reverb room was a barn full of big panes of glass hanging from the roof. Real reverb!”
You will have been well aware of the history of Rockfield Studios and all those who recorded there before you, not least Echo and the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes.
“Yeah, and of course Hugh worked with them. He’d tell great stories of Julian Cope running around the hills dressed in a white smock, with vomit down the front, chasing after Gary Dwyer, the drummer, in some acid-induced frenzy!”
Do you think it helped that two band members – the O’Neill brothers – had already been there, done it, and got the matching jumpers?
“Up to a point. On the strength of Keen and V2, I think they weren’t as clued up as you’d think they were. But with regard to songwriting, I think that’s why the album stands up. With John, and I guess Raymond too, you couldn’t get stuff past them if it wasn’t good enough. There was a lot of quality control in the songs.”
Did that work both ways though? Were you a little scared of bringing songs in?
“You were as well, and there weren’t many songs by Damian or me. But I didn’t really know how to write songs. Just seeing how it all came together was a bit of a mystery.”
One song by Ciaran did make it on to the first album, the brilliant Tightlipped. Don’t take this the wrong way, but while I love that track (the first TPE song I learned on my bass) the lyrics were a little, erm … wordy. Take for example, ‘Purposely the seeds of doubt are being shown by a faceless world, perpetrating verbiage gullible minds accept’. And this on an LP recorded in the week Spitting Image’s The Chicken Song ruled the roost, and the UK top-10 included The Matchroom Mob’s Snooker Loopy, Falco’s Rock Me Amadeus and Level 42’s Lessons in Love.
“Oh God, aye!”
Don’t get me wrong. I probably had those lines proudly scrawled on my A-level history and sociology coursework folders. It was poetic … but a tad po-faced.
“Yeah, well. This is the man who later wrote A Little Bit of Uh-Huh and a Whole Lotta Oh Yeah. ‘Perpetrating verbiage?’ Give me a break, man!”
What a great debut album though (expert a retro review on this here blog very soon), including a few early examples of those trademark Sympathy for the Devil type backing vocals and harmonies – ‘woo–woos’, for want of a better description.
“Yes, I can’t get enough of them! That runs right through from Fleshprint, the first song on the first album to Taking that Damn Train Again on Anima Rising. I think there are going to be some on the next record as well. I don’t know what it is, but it pushes all our buttons … and it works.
”It wasn’t something I thought about until listening back to Anima Rising, but we’re all big fans of black music, soul music, whatever you want to call it. I love Gladys Knight and the Pips, Curtis Mayfield, The Impressions, all those harmonies in the backing vocals – woo-woos and oohs! I think that subconsciously creeps in sometimes, making it more poppy.”
Funny you should mention that soulful undercurrent. I was thinking about one of John’s songs on the first album, Blindspot …
“Great song, yeah.”
You can chart a progression from a fella who I’m guessing was behind the decision – for better or worse – to cover The Miracles’ Save Me on The Undertones’ final album.
“Yeah, I don’t know who made that decision, but it’s on there, right.”
Blindspot carries harder subject matter but still has a Smokey Robinson vibe, something I hadn’t really thought about before.
“Well, I was thinking last week I’m probably just a frustrated soul boy. I love rock music, but if I was going to a desert island I think quite a lot of records I’d take would be soul records. Sometimes with that ’60 and ‘70s soul thing, you don’t get the album thing, but the songs and singles especially are gold.”
A discussion followed regarding a mutual love of ‘60s and ‘70s soul and how – in my case – I really only became alive to those genres in the mid-80s, the period I discovered the Petrols. Talk about The Four Tops followed, after this blog’s interview with Duke Fakir, prompting Ciaran to profess his love for the single, Bernadette.
“I got into soul was through Dexy’s Midnight Runners. And once you make that initial impact, you’ve got this whole world to discover. I even found a new track on-line recently, by Mary Love, Born to Live with Heartache, I hadn’t heard before. I thought, ‘This is brilliant!’ Quite gritty in a way, the subject matter, a bit of a heartbreaker like a lot of Northern Soul. Just a great song. And that suggests there are others out there I haven’t heard before. That kind of keeps you going!”
Briefly on to the second album, 1987’s Babble, and while I’m in danger of another ‘don’t get me wrong, but …’ there are plenty of great songs there, but it has the feel of a ‘difficult third album’, albeit an LP too soon. Please discuss.
“We were hard up for songs really. We were short of songs when we made the record. We made Manic Pop Thrill for Demon and put a few more songs as extras on 12”s. Then we did the deal with Polydor and they wanted a record out, and when we went into the studio I don’t think we had enough good songs.”
There are some corkers though, including a couple of Ciaran’s, not least album closer Creeping to the Cross.
“Bits of the record are good, no doubt. But I think the production has dated and it’s very much of its time – although I think that’s what made it have an impact at the time.”
You mentioned a love of Stump, and there are a few ‘wig-out’ moments there, like your song, Split.
“I don’t know what to say about that! I was still learning how to put stuff together. And when you’re learning, all your influences are a bit nearer the surface. I was listening to Big Flame too, with all that manic, quick, fast guitar.”
By then you’d ditched the ‘perpetrating verbiage’ though.
“Yeah! We ditched the verbiage! I tell you what, though, John O’Neill, writing songs a lot longer than me, managed to get the word ‘vicissitudes’ on one of the b-sides, so outdid me! Do you know what, though, the older you get the more you think, keep it simple”.
I mentioned to John during our 1988 interview how his lyrics often involved talk of factories.
“Maybe there was some hidden message going on there!”
There were signs of a new dance direction by then, as heard on Here It is … Take It and Groove Check. Before that album you wrote the wondrous Genius Move, then on the album gave us the brooding The Price of My Soul and – among several co-writes – the mighty Under the Sky with Raymond, something of a tribute to Can.
“I guess we were listening to all this stuff in the van, and that comes through a little. I’d say though that our first homage to Can was a song on one of the early singles, Mine, that Damian wrote with Steve. There was definitely an influence, whether or not it’s discernible. We’d always try and cover those things up to make it sound more like us rather than a rip-off.
“I’d never really heard Can properly until I’d joined the Petrols. All I remembered was I Want More. But I remember hearing You Do Right for the first time, Raymond playing it in the flat, thinking, ‘My God! What’s this?’ Again you might not hear it in the finished song, but Can came through on Mouth Crazy from the first album, Damian playing right up the neck. A total nick! But then it’s put in context.”
“John was very good at that, and I mean that in a very complimentary way! And everyone nicks. The secret is, if you’re going to do it give it a twist – make it different. Even all the Motown guys nicked off themselves. It’s the Same Old Song!”
At this point – 40 minutes in – I gave Ciaran a chance to get away and get his tea. But he seemed to be enjoying himself, despite my invasive questioning.
“I sometimes think the Petrols have been erased from history in some Stalinish putsch, so it’s nice to have people remembering stuff! Sometimes it feels like you’ve dropped off the radar. But – going back to the soul thing – you’ve got to keep the faith!”
Perhaps I’ve just had time to dwell on how good those last two albums were and how much bigger the band could have been. That’s not so much revising history as disappointment that it never really happened for you commercially. There’s also been a realisation that Ciaran was something of a driving force in part two of the story (from ’88 onwards).
“Well, I felt when John left we had to pick the ball up, so was just doing what I could. I also knew the guy who writes the songs has more of a say and an input into the direction of the band. I had a kid by that stage as well, so extra responsibility to support my family. Even when we wrote Scum Surfin’, Abandon and Blue to Black the record company came back and asked, ‘Where are the singles?’ So we went away and I wrote Hey Venus, Raymond wrote Tingle, and I wrote Sensitise, finding a bit of myself I never knew existed. Traditionally John had written most of the singles – It’s a Good Thing, Big Decision … Now John wasn’t there, I made a conscious effort to fill the gap.”
By the time of the fifth album, 1993’s Fireproof, all your songs seemed to be at the top end of the record.
“I think that was a democratic decision. Unfortunately we were run as a democracy, so didn’t function too well at times! I remember sitting in a room in Los Angeles choosing the track listing for Chemicrazy, trying to thrash out what worked well.”
By the time the TPE story came to an end, Ciaran was long since settled in South London, with two young children. Was there any money left in the band pot?
“There wasn’t much. We did one publishing deal that brought some money in, but when we signed in 1987 we were on £100 a week, and when we split up we still were! We were going on the road and not getting paid. Our roadies were – we were employing them. But we weren’t. I remember coming back from a four-week tour of Europe with a couple of hundred quid in my pocket, thinking this is not sustainable.”
I gather that you worked together in a dole office with Raymond for a short spell.
“Yeah, short-term before the last gigs, having split the previous year, doing a stint at the Benefits Agency. That was a good laugh, but that was about it!”
Camberwell-based Ciaran’s children are now in their 20s, ‘both massive music fans’, ‘brainwashed on countless car journeys’. Neither have followed his lead into the murky world of the rock band, although his son’s ‘a great guitar player who’s really got into electronica’. Has Ciaran ever used his English literature degree outside of music?
“Not really, apart from the use of ‘verbiage’ in a song! I do find words hard. It’s easier to pick up melodies, something half-heard or misheard, then suddenly you’ve got a melody.”
Despite playing down his considerable songcraft, he’s clearly proved himself as more than a great drummer. Of course, there’s a strong tradition of singing-drummers over the years, and I was only recently (namedrop, namedrop) speaking to Graham Nash about The Band’s Levon Helm …
“Are you not going to mention Phil Collins there?”
I could, particularly as we lived in the same village a few years. I’ll always stand up for Phil. Despite the media hype to the contrary, he was a lovely fella as I recall. Besides, he never sent me a fax terminating our friendship.
Anyway, seeing The Everlasting Yeah at The Lexington in Islington earlier this year, it was easy to see what a key part Ciaran plays in the band’s dynamic. Doe that go right back to his Derry band roots, or has that come with age and a current project where the lack of an obvious front-man has given all four band members the chance to shine?
“I always had a big mouth! In The Corner Boys I sang a bit as well, but when I joined the Petrols I was the drummer, just trying to fit in. Gradually you find your voice. It’s because I’m such a big fan of music. I can’t keep my mouth shut! I don’t know. I can’t explain it.”
Is it something in the Irish background and psyche? Or is it just a cliché that everyone plays music down the pub and has a sing-song? It’s not seen as an English quality (although Paul McCartney and Ray Davies might argue with that assumption).
“It’s a different culture I suppose, that whole artistic side – singing, playing music, storytelling, something going back to pre-Norman times. And Irish culture somehow managed to preserve itself through all the changes down the centuries.”
Were you brought up with music around you?
“My mum told me that when I was a toddler they’d hang a transistor radio on the side of the cot. So maybe that’s how I became obsessed with music. She reckons I was mad about The Beatles when I was two or three. So it’s obviously gone under my brain!”
After the Petrols split, I gather you were playing with a jazz band around London.
“I did for a while. That was fun. I really didn’t want to get back into pop or rock music. I didn’t think I could bear emotional rejection and go through all that again – the anger and bewilderment. That sounds a bit dramatic, but … Anyway, eventually I started writing again, and did straight after the band split. But I never wanted to be in another band like the Petrols.”
I get the impression from past conversations there are lots of Ciaran McLaughlin songs waiting to be released.
“I know the good ones that stood my annual cull! When you first write a song you think it’s great, then later realise it’s not. But there are ones that stand up to the test of time, and I know Raymond has some. It’s just that they don’t fit with what we do. I write a lot of acoustic songs, listening to singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell.
“Me and Raymond kept each other going. I remember him coming round the house one Saturday, playing him some songs. He told me that’s what got him into writing again, having been totally disillusioned as well. That was 20 years ago, but we still keep each other going.”
Concentrating on The Everlasting Yeah, I’ll steer clear of the superlatives – it’s all out there already, not least on this website – but your songwriting has proved inspirational. By way of example, tell me how Everything is Beautiful came about?
“That was a song I wrote in that period, and one we felt fit. If you’ve got a catalogue of songs, you can always dip in, and it was Raymond who suggested that. It’s the same with some of his older songs. But I’m a big believer in the bulk of your material being current and the idea that each time has it own energy.
“If you draw too much from the past – even if no one’s heard those songs – that energy’s missing. You need something that’s now, the four of us in the band doing something. That has to be the core of the record, and that’s what Anima Rising is. The next one will be too. Only then can you pull one or two older songs in, if they fit.”
That was the only slow song you played at The Lexington. Let’s face it, you’re not as young as you were, all four of you. But somehow you all seem to have that energy.
“Well, I played the opening song of the LP to a guy at work and he couldn’t believe it was me! He reckoned I sounded 20 years younger. I have to say the four of us somehow generate an energy together.”
As Bob Dylan put it, ‘I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now’.
“Yeah, I just think we’re playing music that could be made by a band in their 30s. We’re not really into nostalgia – just doing something current. Ultimately, I’m a bit wary of the past and big reunions. I’m about the now and looking forward.”
I can see that, despite asking all these questions about your musical past! With that in mind, there were new songs road-tested at The Lexington. Will it be a similar set at Putney’s Half Moon?
“We’re hoping to do at least one additional song. We’re still working it out! We write songs together, and at the moment we’ve got a large section, coming together in the same way The Grind works.”
It must be hard fitting this around the day-jobs, in Ciaran’s case audio description work for the visually-impaired. What if someone came forward with a wad of cash to pay for studio time and so on?
“We’ve all got families, commitments, jobs, so can only really rehearse once a week, sometimes not even that. It takes a while for things to come together. I was talking to Brendan about this, and we agreed if we had that extra time to rehearse we’d be so far ahead. But what we have now that we didn’t 20 years ago makes it more enjoyable than the latter stages of the Petrols. Perhaps it had become a job by then. Lack of success kind of grinds you down. We’re older as well, so tend not to get so worked up about stupid stuff.”
Also in contrast to the old days is the political side. The band clearly remain passionate about certain issues, but the political landscape has changed and the new songs seem more person-political than hinting at the kind of polemic and soundbites the music press liked to stoke up in the past (arguably to the detriment of the music).
“Absolutely, and I find all the organisations, movements and -isms you get now, I can’t identify with them wholly. There are so many imperfections and you’re sort of hostage to fortune once you affiliate with them. What happened to us was a good example. I know for sure things were held against us, people maybe interpreting things we said, rightly or wrongly to be a, b or c. And then they were finished with us.”
There were definitely elements of lazy journalism too, putting labels on you that ultimately stuck.
“They did, but I think we were naive as well, expecting the nuances of what we were trying to say would somehow be picked up on and someone would spend time trying to figure it out. Sometimes it’s easier to write black and white then move on, and we were the ones who had to pick up the slack, being labelled with whatever. Very frustrating.”
From the distant past to the happening present and the future – what happens in the long run? Will there be a solo album at some stage?
“There will definitely be a second Everlasting Yeah album. Me and Raymond have talked about a third as well, maybe an acoustic or at least a lighter record, so we have somewhere to put that … stuff! We’ve got enough songs of that ilk that are really good but are not being utilised – proper songs with verse, chorus and middle bit! We can’t plan that far ahead though. We’ve got to get the second album out first! It’s just something we talk about in a ‘wouldn’t it be great’ kind of way!
“But Anima Rising is the record I’m most happy with, of all those we’ve made – the whole way it sounds is us! We made it for ourselves almost, so the fact that other people enjoyed it is brilliant. And now we want to do it all again.”
I feel duty-bound to ask what happens if a fifth person comes in (no names, no pack drill). The four-piece model works so well – would you ever consider changing that dynamic?
“I would never say never, even if it’s just to get another instrumentalist to expand the sound – as long as it’s interesting. I always feel it’s really dodgy when you get bands that all of a sudden get really big then add members. I remember REM did that with an extra guitarist. It wasn’t any better – it was the beginning of the end.
“You’ve got to discipline yourself to work within the limits you’ve got. At the moment, the way things are, it’s hard enough as it is with four, without a fifth! I quite like it the way it is. It works, and we’re a tight little unit.”
Good answer, and without even mentioning Steve Mack … until now.
“Actually, we saw Steve last year. He loved Anima Rising. He was really gracious in his praise, and that was great. He’s still in Seattle and was making noises about getting us to go over and play there. We’d love to, but realistically it’s not going to happen. Those days of flying to the other side of the world to do one gig … I don’t know if they ever existed!”
We could always re-commission Concorde. You could play a gig in London then fly over for another in Seattle the same day – in tribute to fellow singing-drummer Phil Collins, recreating Live Aid at Wembley and Philadelphia in ‘85, that same summer I first saw the Petrols.
“Well, there you go. Or play for some Russian oligarch, who pays your rent for the next 15 years.”
You heard it first. But until that’s confirmed, I’ll settle for a second album and some new dates for The Everlasting Yeah, starting next Thursday, May 12th at the Half Moon, Putney (with a link for tickets here).
For a selection of past writewyattuk interviews, features and reviews with The Everlasting Yeah, That Petrol Emotion and The Undertones, use the search button at the top of this page. And for the latest from The Everlasting Yeah, try their website, Facebook and Twitter links.