Sometimes I have those melancholic moods when I just feel like listening to some bands I have not listened to for quite a while. Bringing back memories, drifting away to the past when life was simple. This week was one of those moments and the pretty sad news reached me that Solemn Novena have ceased to exist. This means the last band of friends of mine when I used to live in Ireland is gone. Time surely flies …
Who were Solemn Novena and what is my story of the Irish arts scene? We go back in time 5 years when I had my first expat experience in Dublin. Basically, I disliked it. It’s a great city for those who love to party, socialise and go out. For those who prefer arts, debates and alternative hangout spots, it’s not exactly a nice place to be. Maybe I just looked at the wrong places, but the cultural scene in Dublin seemed to be comatose and nearly dead. The city also was overexpensive, at those days it was listed as 13th most expensive city of the world, on par with New York. With that difference that in NYC you have a huge cultural offer in return for that price, whereas in Dublin you were lucky to rent a bedsit for less than 700 euro in the city center (the suburbs were gloomy places with dirty streets and dirty buildings and not safe at night at all… Inchicore by night should give the curious traveller a perfect example of what I mean).
In fact it was odd that this Dublin was once home of one of the most experimental bands of their era: the Virgin Prunes. That means going back in time even further: in the late seventies and early eighties Dublin was an even gloomier place with high unemployment, little future perspectives and very conservative. A group of youngsters tried to escape Dublin life by seeking refuge in a made up secret society called Lypton Village, a place where –hidden behind alter ego’s and nicknames– they could be who they wanted to be. Two bands formed out of this youth "gang": the highly succesful U2 (it was in Lypton Village that Bono got the moniker that all people know him by) and the more experimental Virgin Prunes.
The Virgin Prunes were ahead of their time for sure. Instead of trying to aim for success with accessible music, they tried to alienate the audience by pushing the boundaries of music. Their music were sometimes regular songs but also it was often enough just a collage of sounds without real structure, while the band members recited poetry. Some "songs" were just sound recordings or for example birds flying around. The band wanted to experiment as much as they could, and pushed the boundaries of music further and further. It is quite unbelievable that such a band (which would be alternative even by the standards of progressive cities like London or West Berlin) came out of hyperconservative Dublin of the late seventies. Or maybe it just meant to be this way: this was their way to escape from dready Dublin life. The majority of people felt alienated by the unconventional creations of the band (and their androgynous appearance and dramatic stage performances) but they also gained a cult following. Songs such as "Caucasian Walk" are still being played in local alternative bars, the band may never become a commercial success but several succesful musicians from more recent eras did quote the Virgin Prunes as an inspiration. The band, with Guggi (Derek Rowan), Gavin Friday (Fionan Hanvey), Dav-id Busaras and Dik Evans (brother of U2’s The Edge) as a few prominent members, ceased to exist in 1986. It is hard to tag this band : alternative for sure, but so renewing that even then it became hard to tag them. Gothic, rock, avant-garde, glam rock, prog rock…. were mixed into a quite unique sound. It was one of the first and few truly experimental acts to come out of Dublin.
Moving out to Belfast was a relief because there, the arts scene was very vibrant, even when it was underground. Poetry readings, open mike nights, singer-songwriter nights in local pubs, local magazines promoting beginning Northern Irish artists, concert halls only programming local bands on certain nights, …. It was all there. You had to dig a bit below the surface, but Belfast had a very very vibrant underground scene. In fact this should cause little surprise. People after all grew up in a "war zone" and felt unsafe to discuss religion or politics or everyday fears in public. The arts scene, which was openminded and non-sectarian, was the place where people dared to speak about their daily fears in war-torn Belfast. Needless to say that punk was incredibly popular ; a style of music always known for its political and society-criticising undertone. Even today with a more or less peaceful Northern Ireland, punk bands still emerge and the number of punks in the streets of Belfast is quite high.
Let’s go back in time again : in the seventies the Troubles were at a peak. Right at that time two of the most famous bands from the province started to rise: Derry had The Undertones and Belfast had Stiff Little Fingers. The two bands couldn’t be more different though, with playing punkrock as their shared ground. But the Undertones sang about meeting a new girl, being in love, teenage ongoings, … Their signature song "Teenage Kicks" became an anthem still highly popular in Ireland these days. The opening line "Are teenage dreams so hard to beat?" must be one of the most famous opening lines ever, and a mural in Belfast recites this line in honour of the late John Peel. The famous British DJ considers this the best song ever and wanted it on his gravestone even. He said he could never announce a new song right afterwards because the song always brought tears to his eyes. It is also the only song he ever played twice in a row. The Undertones sang about how everyday normal feelings and normal ongoings continued even in a city where attacks and violence were extremely common, it was a statement that normal life still was going on. Stiff Little Fingers on the other hand were talking explicitly about The Troubles and their music was very explicitly dealing with the subject. Their signature tune "Alternative Ulster" became an epic as well, even leading to a local music magazine naming itself after the song. The rivalry between both bands was heavy, as The Undertones blamed SLF for sensationalising the conflict, where they in returned blamed The Undertones that they tried to deny it. In any ways, music was very much alive in Northern Ireland. Punk to date still is very popular and a way for local musicians to express their experience of life in Northern Ireland.
I myself was a fan of gothic music and new wave and dark wave. I was listening to bands such as Bauhaus, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Smiths, Silke Bischoff, … all the time. New wave, dark wave, gothic. Unfortunately, unlike punk, the goth scene in Ireland was very limited. There were only 3 pubs on the entire island having regular goth nights (see further). It was the dissatisfaction of that, and also the dislike of modern goth music dominated by synths, that lead to the formation of Solemn Novena. Their goal was to bring the guitar-driven gothic rock back to the front in the UK.
Solemn Novena were one of the local bands I had a personal connection with. I basically knew their members personally. Guitarist Stuart was a local DJ during goth nights. Vocalist Andi Effe was a regular visitor of those goth nights. And then there was Mark. Mark McCourt, the most iconic of them all. One of the most eccentric and most interesting persons I met on the island. Basically he was in a quite succesful but defunct goth band called Nosferatu before. Mark had a haircut that would make Robert Smith of the Cure almost look normal, and you rarely saw him during daytime. He did not have a job, so he said, but was just busy with music all the time. The times when he entered the city was late night when he would hang out in cafes to listen to music and discuss music. He was a regular as well at the local goth clubs in Belfast and it was there I always talked to him. I cannot count the number of evenings we used to sit there discussing goth music, The Smiths (his favourite band) and listen to the songs being played. A highly eccentric guy but that is meant with nothing but positive undertones.
With the aim of bringing guitar orientated goth rock back to the front in the UK, Solemn Novena was formed with these three people, and female vocalist Louise Crane in addition. A demo record named "As Darkness Falls" quickly enough followed and I was witness of their first gigs who, no surprise, were in the two pubs in town that organised goth nights now and then. It was clear from the start these people had talents. There were songs such as "Siren" where pounding guitar riffs guided Louise’s seducing vocals, or songs such as "Like Fireworks" where Andi did a great vocal delivery. Magazines were full of praise about the band, a foreign magazine even listing their record in a list of best unsigned bands’ output. The self-released demo did lead to some performances, one of the few ones outside their native Belfast being in Berlin. By then the band had switched male vocalist twice already, as Andi had to leave his position due to having to move to Wales for his university education. A very nice and friendly guy by the moniker of Megatron took over male vocal duties but also he left after a while, which lead Mark to not only continue playing guitar but also add the male vocals to the duty list.
The band kept receiving praise for how the succesfully mixed modern-era goth music with elements from the first wave of gothic bands and thus brought a refreshing sound in the scene. In early 2010 their debut full length CD "Kiss the Girls" was released. It was unfortunately also their farewell output. Shortly after the release concert, the band disbanded for reasons not mentioned.
I am not sure what caused this talented threesome to disband while success was lurking around the corner. Was it the fact that they only played few gigs outside of their home city Belfast? Was it the problem to distribute their music in other countries (a problem that, thanks to artificially created hypes from Pop Idols and such, makes it hard for hard working talented bands to get noticed and get a record deal)? Was it something else? Fact is, seeing the many positive feedback from the music press, this band could have been big. Their EP "As Darkness Falls" and CD "Kiss The Girls" (which can still be ordered online) are testimonies of what could have been.
The disbanding of Solemn Novena is in a way symbolic of how gothness has been in decay in Ireland for a long time now. The whole island (Republic and North combined) counts only 2 bars that organise goth nights. There used to be more, but in Cork and Derry those goth nights ceased to exist due to a lack of interest from the crowd. Then Dublin and Belfast were left. In Dublin there is the weekly Dominion club which is in the basement of a football bar hosting a Celtic FC fanclub (the toilets are shared and the football fans often gave us looks as if they never saw a goth before). In Belfast the situation is even worse: the Cornucopia club is run only once a month, a second goth club which was active on weekly basis and was named Necrodanse had to cease operations as well as the lack of audience made it impossible to continue. That leaves the entire island with just those two clubs. Add to that that very often you see the same faces every single week (or month) and that the list of songs on the list was very predictable. I actually quite like Marilyn Manson, Rammstein, Nine Inch Nails, etc but these bands are not goth bands, they’re metal/industrial. The fact that the "goth clubs" had to play more such music than real goth music to at least get a bit of people visiting the club nights, indicated how the interest in goth music was extremely low. And if you do decide to add some artists from other music styles in the playlist to attract a larger audience, then at least don’t play the same songs every week and dig into their entire catalogue!!!
Summarised, gothness is comatose on the island and with Solemn Novena gone there’s not much hope left.
What about the other guys I knew who were in a (non-goth) band? Pat & Nipsy are the ones still active. These guys were the friendliest and most adventurous people you can think of. They once decided in an impulsive moment to fly to Athens with the last few pounds they had left, not knowing if they’d find a place to sleep or food there. They then slept on couches of people they met in the city, went busking on the streets daily to get some bit of money and that way managed to buy food. They returned to Northern Ireland with the bit of money they saved from weeks of busking in Greece, and would do a similar stunt later on when they went to LA without any schedule organised in advance. Their busking effords there even made the local press. In the end they realised in Ireland getting a record deal would be hard, so they moved on to England where they first played in a band called The Fools (who released a demo "Enjoy It" to very positive reactions) and after the disbanding of this band formed Smokey Angle Shades.
Then there was a band called The Black Tokens. I remember a gig of them in Lavery’s (a very famous venue in Belfast which organised special nights for local bands only) after which I ended up being invited to an afterparty at the home of one of the band members, a flat ironically located in the notorious Sandy Row. They also had a demo out of which "How does it feel?" and especially "Another little lie" were fabulous rock songs with heavy guitar riffs and energetic vocals by Niall. The band claimed to have taken their name from a night in a Monaco casino, although I’m not sure how much of that is true. After a while Niall left the band, and the band continued with a new singer. A bit later the band called it an end. Another talented band who for some reasons didn’t make it beyond the local Belfast scene.
Belfast has a very vibrant underground arts scene with a lot of local bands. Some of them have a very interesting message to say, and especially punk is very much alive in the capital of Northern Ireland. Also, there are several great alternative bars such as The Limelight and Auntie Annie’s who frequently organise gigs for local bands and play music such as Nirvana, Tool, Green Day, Rage Against The Machine, …. The alternative scene in Belfast is big, and if you dig deep enough you’ll find a lot of interesting artistic events happening with really talented and socially aware musicians. Unfortunately, it seems to be quite hard to make it outside of the boundaries of Northern Ireland.
A last band worth mentionning was The Messiah Syndrome from Derry. Industrial metal with society-criticising lyrics. I often chatted with their eccentric guitarist/lyricist Mickey. band relied on the heavy guitar riffs and the vocal power of vocalist Sean who was even louder and more powerful live than on record. Songs such as "In all seriousness", "Molotov spike" and "Lost transmission" showed the potential of this band was huge. Surprise surprise… the band disbanded.