‘Well, the Jacks are back. And what an All-Ireland we have for you tonight’.
As opening gambits go, Bono’s introduction to the partisan hordes at Croke Park just after 8.30 p.m. on a sticky June evening in 1985 had a familiar peel. Eight years previously, Phil Lynott had marked Dublin’s All-Ireland football semi-final victory over Kerry with a similar line from the stage at Dalymount Park, where Thin Lizzy were headlining a bill that also featured another emerging local act, The Boomtown Rats. Trip forward through the wires to Dublin 3 and U2’s singer had recently turned 25 years old and now, four albums in, his own band was on the cusp. They’d come very far very quickly and, just four summers earlier, had nervously opened for Lynott’s Thin Lizzy at Slane Castle. Croke Park was easily U2’s biggest Dublin show yet, marketed with an almost reluctant brand of hoopla and fanfare as ‘a sort of homecoming’ and yet, very clearly, marking the end of the beginning of the hero’s journey too. The release of The Unforgettable Fire in October, 1984, had carried U2 onto the Rubicon but now, however fleetingly, they were back from the far-away and returned to more familiar turf.
Myself and my friend, Michael, had been enticed by the late addition of R.E.M. onto the support bill, where they joined In Tua Nua, The Alarm and Squeeze. We’d travelled up from Cork that morning and, I guess, were half-hoping that the headliners too might find it in themselves to put on a show for us. Young, dumb and drunk on cool, we’d had a long day in the sun ;- by the time U2 took to the stage we’d already been in the old stadium for an eternity. Our thoughts were already drifting to the journey back to whatever part of Dublin we were staying in and, in many respects, our £12.50 tickets were wasted on us. We were really there in name only and, thirty years on, recall the aftermath far more vividly than the main event.
I took a job the previous summer in the Roches Stores supermarket on Patrick Street in Cork ;- into my final year at secondary school, it was high time I got out from under my mother’s feet and started to contribute a few pounds at home. On my first morning in the standard issue blue house-coat, I was assigned to an experienced staffer who understood well the vagaries of the biscuit aisle and a whole lot else besides. He told me pretty quickly that he’d only recently been ‘inside’, although he didn’t elaborate on either where or whom. The clues – had I not been so clueless – were dotted in Indian ink all over his arms ;- these indeed were the hands of a fired man. I made my excuses and quietly went to work on the gang-packs.
It was during breaktimes with my work-mates in the cavernous store-rooms at the back of Roches that I first saw U2’s broad appeal up-close. I frequently heard tell, in obsessive detail, of the emerging Dublin band’s genius and of it’s many connections with Cork. One of my new colleagues was especially smitten ;- he’d seen them twice in 1982 in The City Hall and had heard about a bit of hand-bagging with one of the support-acts, a local shower called The Unknown Wrecks who, I was told, didn’t appreciate U2 acting up on someone else’s manor.
I had a basic working knowledge of U2. Themselves and Pat Benatar seemed like constants on MT U.S.A., the Vincent Hanley/Bill Hughes music video-show that dominated Sunday afternoons on RTE Two television and, consequently, I now knew Bono’s Red Rocks schtick by heart. Dave Fanning seemed just as unnaturally infatuated by them as any and his nightly show on RTÉ Radio served them well and regularly. As did Hot Press who, someone said, was keeping Ireland safe for rock and roll. To be fair, I thought that New Year’s Day was pretty ace but thought that ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday’ was chronic. I preferred Under A Blood Red Sky to War which, I thought, was clumsy and over-weight and, other than that, U2 were merely close to fine. In my mind, other bands like R.E.M., The Smiths and New Order especially, were better, a bit more adventurous and far more curious.And I wasn’t slow to say so. U2’s case wasn’t helped either by the fact that so many others – like Dallow, Spicer, Pinkie, Cubitt and the others back in Roches – loved them so unquestioningly and so blindly. The irony was lost completely on me :- U2 were simply too popular and I was just a snob.
I’d sometimes head out around town during my lunch break and would often drift into the Golden Discs shop on Patrick Street or Pat Egan’s place in The Queen’s Old Castle. It was there that I bought the In Tua Nua single, Coming Thru – which now sounds like a failed social experiment but which, back then, was loaded with promise – and happily shared it around the store-room. Bizarrely, while some of the lads had scant knowledge of the band almost all of them had heard of the label, Mother Records. And this was just more of it ;- U2 were everywhere and, on one level, it just seemed unpatriotic not to swear blindly by them.
Before we left school for good in June, 1985, one of the longer-serving and better teachers advised us to take a hard look around the class. There were lads in our year who, we were told, we’d never see again and others that we’d never want to see again. I can’t remember us ever discussing the complexities of male friendships and how, over time, boys become men and how their relationships develop – and often implode – accordingly. This, after all, was an all-male school in a working class part of the Northside of Cork city where, presumably, this kind of carry-on was a bit quare.
Decades on and some of us, but not many, are in touch just as often now as we were then. Somewhere beneath the surface, a shared love of guitar bands, books and films, hurling and our beloved hometown has helped to keep Michael and myself in touch ever since. We sat together in the old A.G. building every school-day for five years, where the conversation was routinely dominated by music, sport and television. By The Byrds, The Beatles, The Beach Boys and R.E.M., by records we’d inherited from our parents and new songs we’d picked up along the way. By tales of derring-do down in The Glen or up in Na Piarsaigh and Delaney Rovers, by names like Spriggs, Connery, Cummins, Coutts and Hackett. We were infrequently touched by celebrity and glamour too :- we had a female teacher one time and, on another occasion, the late broadcaster Liam Ó Murchú paid our class a visit. He’d been parachuted onto the Fianna Fáil ticket in Cork North Central in 1982 and, in his fancy cravat and stacked heels, was canvassing the wide voter base in his old school and promising that he’d repair the swimming pool up by the monastery. And that, really, was that ;- when it came to music and arts, we were pretty much on our own and were happy out for that.
Some of us had seen The Smiths in The Savoy in 1983 and 1984 and Depeche Mode in The City Hall in 1982 [and, by default, the last part of a raucous, discordant Microdisney support set which, in the great traditions, has become far more than the sum of its parts in the many years since]. We’d started to explore and gather widely, and it wasn’t just new music either. From out of nowhere, one of our number saw our Prefab Sprout and raised us his Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Rubber Soul. Someone else produced a Joy Division album and my desk-mate trumped it with a Byrds tape. A copy of Back Again In The D.H.S.S. by Half Man, Half Biscuit was distributed far and wide and, in one corner of the yard, vinyl was swapped on a daily basis.
Talk of The Beatles led us down a couple of other avenues. One night, two of us fetched up at a Transcendental Meditation information session in the meeting rooms in The Metropole Hotel. But on scanning the room and determining the affair a bit too illicit and weird, we made for the exit quickly and ended up playing a couple of frames of snooker instead.
One of the early evening television magazine shows on RTÉ had featured a short film report about Dave Fanning’s radio show. In one of the sequences, he gets into an old Renault 5 and, exactly as I’d imagined, slides a cassette into the player on the dash :- R.E.M.’s magnificent Radio Free Europe comes on. This, to me, was where the bar was set ;- shortly afterwards I wrote to the P.O. Box number cited on the liner notes of the band’s second album, ‘Reckoning’, earnestly insisting to whoever was on the other end just how difficult it was, living in Ireland, to keep up to date with events in Athens, Georgia. Where, I imagined, R.E.M. cavorted freely and frequently with the likes of The Meat Puppets, The Long Ryders, Let’s Active, Guadalcanal Diary and Green On Red.
When, the following year, I saw that R.E.M. had been added to the support bill for U2’s home-coming show in Croke Park, the decision to travel more or less made itself. The timing was sweet too ;- we’d completed the Leaving Cert a couple of weeks previously and, having stayed honest and earnest until the very end, had earned our right to make the trip. With another of my recent favourites, The Alarm, also added to the bill, and with an opportunity too to see one of the great British pop bands, Squeeze, the fact that this was U2’s biggest headline show in Ireland to date didn’t matter and was conveniently lost in the wash.
I’d been to Croke Park twice previously and had been unfortunate enough to see Cork’s hurlers wiped out by Kilkenny in the All-Ireland finals of 1982 and 1983. On both occasions I’d travelled by train with another friend of mine, Brendan O’Sullivan from Great William O’Brien Street, and his older, sports-mad brothers, Anthony and Dom. In 1982, Cork were given an education on the field and, as Christy Heffernan announced himself as the definitive agricultural full-forward of his time, so too were we given a life lesson of our own up in The Canal End in our rain-soaked Lord Anthony duffle coats. Before the throw-in, the stellar Cork forward Tony O’Sullivan, then a gifted teen who’d been a couple of years ahead of us in school, was reduced before the National Anthem had started. The mood of the day had been set and, while I have a vague memory of the game itself, I can vividly remember the dank atmosphere on the torturous train journey back to Cork. But at least I’d been inside the great old ground and, by the time we’d returned in 1985, I felt as if I knew the venue intimately. Showing like we owned the place and anxious not to miss a single note, we were in situ in Croke Park long before the hawkers had even unfurled the first of the U2 headbands.
All of these years later and I can remember the riots and the support bill with far more clarity than I remember U2’s set. Michael and myself had negotiated the first part of the trip – from Cork to Dublin by train – handily enough and, on arrival, were greeted by our host, a cousin of his who’d ventured in from the suburbs to meet us at Heuston. We’d made plans to meet him again after the show, whenever and wherever and however :- we had a vague idea where we were staying and it never once struck us to note an address. We had better and far more important business to be minding.
The day of the concert was exceptionally hot and, from our seats high up in The Cusack Stand, we took a fair amount of heat. R.E.M. had blown away Dublin’s S.F.X. the previous year when they’d powered their way through the best parts of their first two incendiary albums, with an odd nod to the debut IRS mini. But Fables Of The Reconstruction is a more difficult and far more considered record and plugging it here, out of doors and battling both the elements and a typical support act’s sound mix, they were melting before us. In a long over-coat and panama hat, and with his back to the audience, Michael Stipe intoned the off-kilter Feeling Gravity’s Pull;- it was far too subtle for the four-albums-a-year set and it wasn’t just the sky that was up in arms. Almost immediately a barrage of bottles rained down on-stage, pulling a drawly response from Peter Buck. It was absolutely terrific and, the more the band confronted and battled the crowd, the sound and the scale of the venue, the more we loved them.
Comprehensively stealing the show that afternoon were a big-haired, fast-paced four-piece from the best and worst traditions of punk rock, a band that had paid it’s dues, worked the clubs endlessly and who now, obvious to all, were on the brink of a serious popular cross-over. We left in awe, heads turned and brains melted ;- nothing was going to stop The Alarm. I never understood why – or, rather, I never wanted to fully understand why – The Alarm were so maligned. Fanning had played Unsafe Building and The Stand off the air and now, with ’68 Guns’, they’d cracked the Top Forty ;- ‘they’re after you with their promises, they’re after you to sign your life away’, they railed. And beyond their well-intentioned, Dylan-tinged sentiment were, to my ears, the kind of simple, unsophisticated mega-choruses that were important and valid because, unlike so much of what we were all listening to, required no de-construction. The Alarm, in their own way, dealt as emotive and direct a hand as The Smiths and yet were everything that The Smiths weren’t.
They dominated the bill that afternoon, no question. The hands were in the air from the off, an over-load of call-and-response to the guts of Declaration, the band’s excellent debut. The Alarm left a pretty serious footprint behind them at The Canal End, going out in a blaze of glory indeed. And were we ever to form a band, we’d be taking our cues from Mike Peters and Dave Sharp, and that much was certain.
Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook had already written some of the finest and most perceptive British pop songs of their generation and, with the clock now counting backwards to the arrival of the main deal, their band did exactly what was required of them. Scheduled in the tea-time slot, Squeeze kept the score-card ticking over without ever threatening a knock-out blow. Their gorgeous melodies and smart word-plays were largely wasted across the vast spaces but at least they kept shuffling their feet, and with no little swagger. Too subtle and clever for the great outdoors – where the crowd had now swelled in numbers and had gotten noticeably noisier – Squeeze had earned their corn as U2’s fluffers.
I know that U2 opened with 11 O’Clock Tick Tock and not, as you’d think from the Windmill Lane documentary clip on YouTube, I Will Follow, which was the second number on the night. But beyond that, I remember little else of the detail. Yes, I know that Bad was as sublime as I’d hoped it would be, worlds removed from the under-cooked album track that barely registered on The Unforgettable Fire. Here, as was standard during this period, it provided the meat in the middle-order. I was transfixed then, as I still am, by Larry Mullen :- to this day, he consistently appears as if he’s playing to exactly the same rhythm all of the time and yet, on Bad, he owns all ten minutes, chaperoning it from humble, shy beginnings and delivering it as one of the most intense live music experiences I’ve been fortune enough to witness. Edge’s guitar solo – back- boned and enabled from behind the traps – takes the song into some kind of wonderful, even more profound than I’d ever imagined.
There were other moments too. They did Springsteen’s My Hometown as a first encore, back-to-back with Out Of Control, and made several other detours during their eighteen song set, notably Ruby Tuesday and Give Peace A Chance. Following the last post – was it 40? – and as the crowds began to drift out into the night and onwards, Michael and myself stayed behind to catch the shafts of green, white and gold light cross-beam the masses as Clannad’s ‘Harry’s Game’ sounded out over the P.A. We left Croke Park wondering why The Alarm hadn’t played for another thirty minutes.
Following the crowds across the city, down past Barry’s Hotel and then The Gresham Hotel and into the middle of O’Connell Street, we eventually found Grafton Street and, to round off the day, walked straight into the first of the baton charges. For whatever reason, the Guards were flaking wildly as, all around us, shop windows were put in and a real scene was kicking off. The air was thick with Northern accents and loose talk ;- someone remarked that some of the Guards had removed their numbers from their shoulders and were pulling with abandon. Michael and myself were even separated for a while, re-united much later somewhere up around Saint Stephen’s Green. We’d missed our bus and, on foot, asked for directions to Stepaside ;- we could have been asking for directions back to Fair Hill, and we just kept walking onwards.
There was an incident with a telephone directory in a booth somewhere along Baggot Street. We gave Liam Mackey a royal salute when we saw the then TV GaGa presenter striding out past The Shelbourne Hotel ;- and he waved back. It was about the friendliest exchange we’d encountered since we left Cork that morning. In the days long before de-regulation and on the night of a couple of serious events, a taxi ride home was out of the question too ;- it was 4AM before we were finally picked up by a fanatical cab driver who, with little prompting, insisted on driving us around past the corners where some prostitutes were gathered. Silently, I wished I was at home with my mother.
To this day, Michael and myself remember the prologue and the aftermath in far greater detail than we do U2’s performance as we roamed, more Adam and Paul than Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, directionless and gormless around Dublin. The narrow streets around where I’d grown up had produced a mind which, betimes, could be just as narrow and, far from the comforts of what I knew, the whole experience was more a rude awakening than a spiritual awakening.
In hindsight, Croke Park was a last refuge for U2. We saw, for instance, a hat-less Edge. We saw what was, quite possibly, the last great U2 tour without an over-reliance on smoke and mirrors :- exposed on a huge, Spartan stage, the band had started to boost their sound with sequencers and tapes and yet, for all that, the core sound was still an unsophisticated one. And we saw the machine at work at close quarters :- if REM sounded tinny and slight, U2 were vast and heavyweight. If The Alarm were stealing the show, it was Squeeze who went home empty-handed and with their pockets picked.
But more than anything we saw a master showman borrow shamelessly from left, right and centre to claim another big home win.
A new television documentary on U2, U2 Agus An Arc, will be broadcast on RTÉ One on Thursday, July 20th next.