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?