Chant! Chant! Chant! – They Called Us The ’76ers

For many of us, punk offered a lifeline away from our own particular difficulties. On a practical level they in the North had access to condoms, for example, and we had other oppressive fish to fry, and not just just on Fridays!‘ – Siobhán Kane talks to Eoin Freeney of Chant! Chant! Chant! ahead of their first live performance in over 30 years.

Chant! Chant! Chant! formed in Dublin in 1979, and in their three years together, they produced and released one great limited edition single – Quicksand/Play Safe (1981). Years later, Play Safe would find its way on to the brilliant Strange Passion compilation (released by Finders Keepers last year), which also features work by Major Thinkers, SM Corporation, the Threat, and Operating Theatre, providing an important and cohesive rendering of Irish post-punk and electronic music from 1980 – 1983; a particularly exciting and heady period in Irish musical history.

Encouraged by the new wave of interest in their work, the band are back together for a show, and a sort of homecoming, with all original members; Eoin Freeney, Robby Wogan, Larry Murphy, Paul Monahan, and the addition of new member Vinny Murphy, providing a neat kind of circularity to their story. Eoin Freeney talks to Siobhán Kane.

You formed in 1979 – how did you all meet, and how do you remember the musical landscape of Ireland at that time?
The musical landscape was on reflection quite diverse at the time, and there were bands like Stepaside playing American soft-rock pop in venues like the Sportsman on Dublin’s southside, while Moran’s hotel on the northside was home to the emerging punk scene with the Boomtown Rats, Radiators From Space, Revolver etc. Media-wise the pirate radio stations with DJ’s such as Pat James would interview and play demos from new bands. I remember magazines like Vox and Heat being vital for info on all aspects of new music especially for finding good gigs.

A DIY ethos was evident within the emerging scene, with bands coming together to share in a collective form both venues and tours. For example the so called ‘Dream Dates’ tour that took place around ’77 with the ‘Boy scouts’, ‘Fab Fabrics’ and ‘The Sinners’ touring smaller venues around the country, and fanzines such as ‘Imprint’ Magazine also covered the punk scene and championed bands like ‘The Blades’ and gigs at the Magnet bar.

While most of this era has been well documented elsewhere, a little known fact is that many of the suburban bands who played rock in the late ’60’s early ’70’s were happy to teach and help the next generation of kids and saw punk as an exciting continuation of rock ‘n’ roll. Folk music and Sean O’Riada were there in a big way but when it came to boys dancing with girls it was usually Disco music that won the day.

Chant! Chant! Chant! formed when the rhythm section Paul Monaghan and Larry Murphy from The Threat left in response to one riot too many at their gigs. Both myself and Robby Wogan then came on board. We all first met at the infamous 24 hour Dark Spaces gig at the recently opened Project Arts Centre. At our first jamming sessions we had one guitar and 3 budding guitarists who used to take turns but Robby fitted in chemistry-wise and had a great record collection besides.

Do you remember how songs like Quicksand, and Play Safe came about, did they emerge over a long period of time? Or do you remember the songs coming quite easily?
As Robby was working away in the UK most of the time we usually rehearsed with just bass and drums. Sometimes it was just vocals and drums and a random radio station on the AM wavelength creating a tension of sorts in the background. On one occasion I was whistling a melody which we taped and gave to the musicians in the band who ran with it, and hey presto we had Quicksand. All creative ideas were welcome and explored .

You were together for a few years, what precipitated the end of Chant! Chant! Chant! – and before this revisiting of your work, had you considered getting back together?
Times were hard and jobs scarce in the ’80’s. Larry reckoned a good impetus to getting a real job would be to say goodbye to his beloved Fender Bass guitar, sadly he also said goodbye to the band and that was its death knell really, as we had all had enough by then. Getting back together has been great fun if hard work. With two members living abroad now any ideas are hampered logistically, unless there are any interesting venues in ‘Second Life’ on the internet.

Did being featured on the Strange Passion compilation remind you of the creativity and furious musical ideas that were coming out of Ireland at that time? Did it feel that way to you?
Yes, it did remind me in a way, although we were not familiar with all the acts on this compilation at that time. There was an incredible energy coming out of Ireland in the creative arts in general. It was harder to find allies but when you did they remained true.

There are many differences between the Ireland of that point and the Ireland of now – both have positive and negative aspects – could you perhaps expand on what made that period positive and negative, and perhaps the differences you see of now?
The negative aspects were pretty much that Ireland could in those days only really be a launching pad for bands seeking to make a full time career. That seemed to be changing but sadly with the demise of the CD and the advent of online piracy things are getting worse again. Many young people seem to feel they have a right to get both music and movies for free, but the well will empty if something dosen’t change.

If you wanted to court publicity in those days it was a bit easier, there is a lot more so called ‘noise’ around drowning out the message in today’s media. Many of my generation talked the talk eg. John Lydon, but happily took the shilling from the multinationals later on. In that way I guess Pete Townsend had it right when he said ‘meet the new boss… same as the old boss‘. We don’t want the artists we admire to sell out. That much hasn’t changed.

On a wider scale there is no doubt that Ireland is a much more liberal place to live in today. Ireland is less sexually repressed and both women’s rights and the rights of minorities have made huge advances. The influx of new nationalities and cultures will bring with it an interesting cross-pollination of ideas, which in turn should enrich us all the more. For today’s Youtube generation, a transgender person singing a mix of dubstep and country in Irish would perhaps be considered cool for Eurovision, whereas a short while ago you were advised to keep your sexuality in the closet if you were in a band on the way up. As for the so called Troubles, well that didn’t really affect us in a major way apart from liking the bands from the North. If you lived in Dundalk I’d suggest things were different though. There is no doubt also that the rise of gaming as a new medium has changed the landscape. It is where both money and time are being spent. It could be argued that this is an improvement over the pub and television as leisure activities of the ’70s/’80s.

In the late seventies, early eighties, Ireland had a very lively showband scene, and the ever-thriving traditional scene, did you come up against any negativity because what you were trying to do was so different?
I don’t remember much negativity from people in different music genres. We, like most young people, enjoyed owning our own form of new music. but most Irish people enjoy a diverse range of music. We don’t generally behave in a snobbish way towards other types of music I believe. Irish people enjoy an open relationship with many forms of music, and parents can have a huge influence on your musical tastes. The Irish who moved to the UK in the ’50’s took a passion for music with them – The Smiths and Oasis being just two bands with Irish parents who epitomise this. We got encouragement and support from most people who loved making and playing music. The older local musicians we knew in our local pub in Marino were called The ’69ers and, given the age difference, they affectionally called us The ’76ers, But they always helped out with lessons and instruments if needed.

You had your own label, Peig the Man, and basically did everything yourself – was it hard back then, to get studio time? Did you find that it was fairly easy to access facilities?
If you were original enough and good enough you would get attention and perhaps be lucky enough for someone like Ferdia McAnna with ‘In Dublin’ or Jude Carr at ‘Heat Magazine’ or Ross Fitzsimons and Bill Graham at Hot Press to champion your band, and you might just move on an upwards trajectory. Luck played a huge part also. We had a champion in Ger Siggins at the fanzine ‘Imprint’ and were lucky enough to make friends with The Blades which in turn meant more gigs, and being taken seriously by the Magnet pub as a crowd puller etc. Dave Clifford at Vox Magazine took us under his creative wing and helped immensely to birth our single. If you were lucky you might win a talent competition also, and get notice as happened with U2 .

The Dandelion Market was the ideal place to see or be seen in at that time, and helped garner an audience as happened for The Threat , DC9 and others. Robby basically loaned us the money to get Quicksand out. I think it was around 550 quid at the time. And we got help from Dave Clifford, who designed the artwork for the single, though it was priceless. As was the goodwill of my brother Paul for publicity and management. Simply put if you got a good demo, you got airplay – radio was king, with Dave Fanning and John Peel, and if you got airplay the phone would ring and you would get a support slot for a popular local or better a visiting band. So yeah we had little or no money but getting a Fanning Session – a free recording session in RTE with Ian Wilson as producer, and guaranteed airplay on Dave Fanning’s radio show – was hugely important back then, which we did, and winning the inaugural Hot Press Most Promising Band Award, which we did, meant free studio time also.

The term “post-punk” has often been applied to your work, and a sense of a movement after the late seventies. How important was punk to your music, and your attitude to what you did? You emerged in a particularly interesting time in musical history, particularly in terms of the atmosphere that surrounded music, there was a kind of restless energy at work, you can see it in early punk and early hip-hop in particular, it must have been quite thrilling.
Many of the creative forces in the British punk movement were from middle class backgrounds and some would bring their creative skills to the worlds of marketing and media. In Ireland that happened also but there would be an overlap into the creative arts in general here. Examples of this perhaps in how The Virgin Prunes Gavin and Guggi, and also Stano, explored the medium of art and film music. Theatre also overlapped with many connections from those who saw a common ideology in a ‘can do’ approach. I was able myself to bring some of that approach later in helping to establish Irelands first gay and lesbian theatre group Muted Cupid. It was not a surprise to see many of the movers and shakers of that time reappear later in the creative arts in general and in media and marketing.

Both Dublin and Manchester have something in common with a lot of rain falling on both – drab long heavy coats and dull coloured clothing added to a dreary atmosphere. The arrival of ‘punk’ meant colourful and more outrageous clothing was suddenly the thing. I can remember parents scuttling their children away from a group of loudly dressed punks in a Dundalk shopping centre in 1979 for fear of what, God knows. But yes there was and I’d like to think still is a certain deliciousness in dressing up to belong to your peer group. There was even more enjoyment when you felt you were aboard a movement that had some kind of collective ideology for change. Movements such as ‘rock against racism’ and bands such as The Clash and Tom Robinson Band did help educate ideas on a political nature for many. Notions of a less insular world for Ireland began to take shape.

Around that time, who were some of the musicians that you were listening to, both locally and internationally?
The Blades, Planxty, Rory Gallagher, Theatrix, U2, Paul Brady, XTC, The Cure, Ramones, Talking Heads etc.

There seems to be a positive throwback to the more DIY aspects of culture now, in part a reaction to the bloated excesses of some of what Ireland experienced, which seemed so incongruous to our culture in so many ways. Now people (some) are trying to reconnect to the earthier aspects of our culture – there are some really exciting things happening in Ireland because of this. What are your thoughts?
There is a huge amount going on under the radar of the media at the moment. I am personally aware of artists such as Jack Harrison, Sinead Whyte and Iarla O Lionaird tapping in to this idea of earthiness. There is a group inspired by Chloe Goodchild ‘The Naked Voice” who do work in using the voice to reconnect with this idea also, which I have recently worked with. No doubt the internet has a positive role to play here also.

Having seen the recent film Good Vibrations, it reminded me of that period in Irish musical life, and how things were the same, but different in the North – and I wondered if you felt that at all in that period, if there felt like a connection to what was going on musically in places like Belfast and Derry. Punk thrived so much in the North because it harnessed the negative energy and turned it inside out to something creative, positive – what are your thoughts?
Totally agree with that. The same process happened here but perhaps on a more subtle scale. For many of us, punk offered a lifeline away from our own particular difficulties. On a practical level they in the North had access to condoms, for example, and we had other oppressive fish to fry, and not just just on Fridays! The bands out of Cork at the time like Microdisney in particular, and Nunattax weren’t afraid to bring politics into their lyrics.

Since that period who have you found yourself listening to, and that you keep coming back to – you have over 30 years of musicians to choose from, and I am interested to see who might have caught your attention over that period.
Like most music it depends on your personal mood to a large degree. I still enjoy the powerful effect Joy Division and New Order bring to the table – good bass lines connect on certain level. And The Cure, Young Marble Giants, early Dexys and The Clash still work well also. I can’t say that I keep going back to anyone in particular, so many new artists have asked for my conscious attention since then.

How has it been all being back together and rehearsing for your show in Dublin? It must be emotional at times, time goes by so fast.
It has been fun, but also hard work. It is wonderful to see our friendships still finding expression through the music. I am still blown away at how the collective creative energy of four or five people in a room can scale heights bigger than the apparent sum of their parts, well, on a good day anyway.

Chant! Chant! Chant! play their first gig in over 30 years with fellow Strange Passion compilation artists ChoiceSM Corporation, plus Strange Passion DJ’s, at The Grand Social on Friday 31st May. Admission is €12.

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