June 17th. 3.10pm
The location is Studio 8 (home of the Fanning sessions) deep in the bowels of the RTE Radio building. The control room of the studio is furnished with the usual recording bric-a-brac: DAT machines, an Apple Mac, two reel-to-reels, the requisite huge speakers and a 24-track mixing desk the size of a barn door. A glass wall separates this area from the live room, a spacious, high-ceilinged chamber cluttered with baffles, ambient mike stands as tall as triffids, open guitar cases and a stripped-down drumkit. A grand piano occupies pride of place by the back wall (the walls themselves decorated in a rather queasy blue-green and grey chessboard effect).
Time, as Gerry Whelan once crooned, is on the wall, and a red Recording frightlight commands the room’s attention every time the tapes begin rolling. This light is both totemic and totalitarian there are few musicians who don’t get a knot in the gut every time the damn thing lights up.
Like now. The Frank And Walters have just finished a dry run of ‘Little Dolls’, the first track of an acoustic session that the band are recording for 2FM. It s a plaintive and empathetic bedsit hymn, lovingly strummed in waltz-time. Singer Paul Linehan’s voice booms, odd and disembodied through the studio speakers. Paddy, any chance we could turn the lights down a bit? he requests in a broad Cork brogue, which remains undimmed by the last four years of travel. Engineer Paddy McBreen complies. Paul counts in the rest of the band, brother Niall on guitar, and drummer Ashley Keating (promoted/relegated to bass for the purposes of today’s unplugged session), and they begin. This first take, like most, is fraught with false starts and tuning breaks, but once the Franks get settled into it, the tune is nailed within ten minutes.
Eavesdropping on the studio experience can be tedious for the average interloper, but today the tracks are going down almost live to tape, so I get to hear each song in its complete form rather than having to sit through endless hours of drum and bass parts, guitar tracking, overdubbing and guide vocals. As Ashley tells me later, We prefer to do em live. Dave Fanning once presented a show from down there (the live room) while we sat across from him and played. It s the best way it s over and done with and you can’t redo it.
The band traipse up to the control room to review the work in progress. The playing is confident and Paul’s voice, (even in the raw when Paddy isolates it in the mix), is pitch-perfect and sure, delivering lines like “She didn’t like pretty clothes anymore/Darkened rags were what she wore” like a Munster version of Morrissey. Indeed, when the chorus line of ‘Will someone turn her on?’ kicks in, it recalls none other than The Platters backing Bowie wailing “Oh no love, you’re not alone” at the climax of Rock N Roll Suicide.
It’s always interesting to watch a band interact with an engineer they don’t know too well. While The Frank And Walters experience undoubtedly empowers them in the studio, they know just how to exploit Paddy’s skills without trodding on any toes. They are businesslike and unfussy workers, preferring to go for a good feel rather than endlessly clucking over details. But today’s session has been blighted by bad news: Paul and Niall’s grandmother has just passed away, so the band have clubbed together for the price of a flight down to Cork where Niall will attend tonight’s removal. This means that the guitarist’s parts have to be completed by five o clock if he s going to make the plane. With this in mind, the musicians are in no mood for dallying so they waste no time in getting down to the next song, ‘Landslide’, for which they’ll be joined by former A House keyboardist Dave Morrissey on piano. Dave played all the keyboards on the new Franks album Grand Parade, from which three of today’s four songs are culled.
The album version of ‘Landslide’ is a masterpiece, a Joycean tumble of words, an elated and elevated celebration of home. Paul adopts a bold baritone for the verses, milking lines like “Passed the old bridge down by the lighthouse/heard the creak of boats down by the quay/And the bell that rings out in Cosy’s says to me/There’s nowhere that I’d rather be” for all the pathos he can before upping the drama for the final epiphanic and ecstatic verse: “Thank God for the stars/Thank God for the sky/Thank God for the sun/That lights all my life/This beautiful place I have as a home”. This is Celtic soul music that calls to mind Pierce Turner’s ‘How It Shone’ more than Dexy’s or Van. It’s also a take. In one.
3.55pm: Hot Press photographer Colm Henry arrives and as he shuffles the band off for their photocall I adjourn to the RTE canteen to savour the gastro-orgasmic delights to be found within. One cup of state-subsidised coffee later and I’m back underground watching the band as they tune up for the third track, ‘Indian Ocean’. (Forget about drugs, drink, violence and raving sluts of all sexes: rock n roll is about tuning up. A warped guitar or a tuner on the blink can waste hours of precious recording time.) This song has been scaled down from the full electric album version to a an uptempo skiffle shuffle. Featuring the immortal line “You’re driving down by the Bay of Biscay/I’m walking down by the side of the Lee”, it suggests Dave Couse busking with a bunch of Cavern-ivorous Beatles. Niall attempts an off-centre guitar-figure on the first take, but the intonation on his guitar isn’t exactly spot-on, so he has to rewrite his part before a second attempt which is friskier but tighter out of the traps. Niall’s now wired with anxiety he’s got 15 minutes to nail the last song, gather his belongings and catch a cab out to the airport.
‘Restraint’ is an outtake from the new album that became a surprise acoustic favourite when the band tried it out at a gig a couple of weeks ago. A heavy-hearted, almost harrowing piece of work, it recalls both Brian Wilson and Hank Williams in lines like “Heaven knows I can’t live in these times”. Again, the group nail it in two, then the hassled guitarist is out the door and homeward-bound. From here on in it’s pretty much Paul’s ball, and as he does running repairs on a rhythm part Ashley takes a seat beside me in the control room and admits to being somewhat some relieved that I won’t be formally interviewing him.
After a couple of days of answering the same questions, you start making things up, he confesses. You don t want to disappoint the guy by giving him the same answer as everybody else, but you wonder should you tell him that you’re lying.
Talk turns to the subject of the new album. The band decided to call it ‘Grand Parade’ not specifically in honour of the street in Cork City, but because the songs suggested the feeling you’d get as a kid when you d see a brass band on the street and how impressed you’d be.
Released on June 30th, the record was not conceived, carried or delivered without its fair share of strife. The Franks initially began work on the follow-up to ‘Trains, Boats And Planes’ in early 94, determined to avoid the dreaded second album syndrome by writing, crafting and recording the material at their own pace. Having written some 20 tracks, the band went into September Sound in Twickenham (owned by The Cocteau Twins) with ex-House frontman Dave Couse taking on production duties.
However, after the record’s completion but prior to the proposed release date in the summer of 96, the Franks record label Go! Discs was bought out by the conglomerate PolyGram. Given that one of the reasons the band had signed with Go! Discs in the first place was because it was an indie label, they were not happy to find themselves as the latest acquisition of a major. It took the lawyers eight months to thrash out a deal whereby the band could return to Setanta (who’d discovered the band in 1990) and bring the new album with them.
Mind you, the record was well worth all the trouble. Packed with killer songs, Grand Parade wears its heart very much on its lapel. Encapsulating compassionate meditations on the loveless and the lonesome ( Little Dolls ), lust for life ( Saturday Night ) or pride of place ( Landslide , Tony Cochrane ), the album is expertly judged both in its playing and production. It’s an affecting document of the band’s last four years and I’d recommend it to anybody with a taste for the other side of Irish rock n roll.
6.20pm: Back at Studio 8, Paul has about ten minutes to redo the vocal on ‘Restraint’ before the mixing must begin. The band need to have two of these tracks completed by tonight so they can be aired during an interview with Pat O Mahony (deputising for Dave Fanning). Paul is worried about the guide vocal bleeding through in his headphones as he sings, but as he admits, I’m always hearing voices in my head anyway. The singer may be only half-joking. As he adopts a Jonathan Richman-ish candid stammer and sings “Time swirls around/Taste turns to sound”, one is struck by the numerous references to all manner of insomniac ghosts in The Frank And Walters songs there’s a kind of troubled southern soul under the jokey demeanour.
As Paul and Paddy begin the mixing, Ashley recalls the last year’s travels. Once safely settled back in with Setanta, the band set about establishing themselves in America, something their previous label had always been reluctant to pursue. Ashley, who with the band has visited (and sometimes lived in) Paris, Manchester, New York, Washington and Boston over the course of the last year, reckons that the most dangerous city he’s been to recently is Cork. On a Saturday night it’s like a lunatic asylum, he testifies.
8.45pm: Paul, Ashley and Paddy have just completed mixing the three of the four tracks. Restraint will have to wait until the likely lads have finished their interview with Mr. O Mahony. Up the corridor in the lurid green studio, Jim Lockhart is wearing a groove in the floor, awaiting the arrival of the late-running Corkonians.
The legendary skewed humour of the Franks has been on the backboiler all day, what with a prevailing air of work-to-be-done and mild anxiety hanging over the proceedings. Now, though, as Pat cues up the freshly-baked ‘Indian Ocean’ on the DAT machine, the band become noticeably more relaxed. Here, in the studio, face to face with interviewer and live to the nation, the wit and Norman-like wisdom of the band comes to the fore. The following are some of the highlights of a rather amusing half-hour:
Pat: You said you d be in a lot earlier. What kept yez, lads?
Ashley: For the last four years or just the last half hour?
Pat: How important is it for a producer to be someone that you actually get on with?
Ashley: With us, we’d have to get on with a producer. I mean, we can get a bit petty, like. We did some sessions with this Belgian engineer before, and we started to not get on with him so we started breakin his DAT machine and steppin on his Rolex watch and lettin the air out of his Mercedes.
Paul (worriedly): But we’re the nice happy Franks.
Ashley: I know that but then . . . we repaired the DAT and the Rolex before he found out that we’d done it, y know?!! So twas okay!
KEITH CULLEN (SETANTA)
Paul: If there’s something wrong with you, he’ll sign ye. If you’re kinda normal, he won;t, y’know what I mean?
OTHER SETANTA ACTS
Pat: Are you basking in the money that these people (Edwyn Collins and The Divine Comedy) have generated?
Paul: Neil Hannon gives us money every week!
THE ALBUM COVER
Ashley: We saw this book, 30 Years Of National Geographic Photographs and twas in there and it just seemed to suit the title of the album.
Pat: That’s an old picture taken in Helsinki, is it?
Ashley: In 1967 by George Mobley.
Pat: And did you have fun tracking him down?
Ashley: Yeah, he was actually livin in Iceland. He had left National Geographic in 1969. Twas amazin they actually found him in a day for us.
Paul (deadpan): He was in an igloo and all. Catchin seals. We went out after him.
Pat (paternally): Alright lads.
Ashley (To Paul): He s onto us.
Paul: Over four years you do change your image a small bit. Unless you’re like . . . Pat Sharpe! He kept his haircut for about 15 years.
Pat: Who’s Pat Sharpe?
Paul: He s a DJ in Radio One in England.
Ashley: He used to be on Saturday Superstore.
Paul: He had long blondey hair, d’you know? Real horrible . . .
Ashley: Kind of a 1980s Chris Waddle haircut.
Pat: You re losing me now.
Paul: We’ve plans to go back to America now. We’re gonna concentrate on America. We’re fed up of playing England. I find it very, very boring.
Ashley: There’s only so many times you can look at a bombed-out cathedral and go, Oh. Great. A bombed-out cathedral!
And, with the strains of the surefire summer hit (if only Setanta would release it) ‘Saturday Night’ on the radio and ringing in my ears, I leave the band to finish off their day’s work. Gas men. Your mother would approve.