Tony Clayton-Lea – Joining The Dots

Songs, static and symmetry: Nay McArdle speaks to author and journalist Tony Clayton-Lea about his new book 101 Irish Records (You Must Hear Before You Die).

Songs, static and symmetry: Nay McArdle speaks to author and journalist Tony Clayton-Lea about his new book 101 Irish Records (You Must Hear Before You Die).

Twenty years of music writing have exposed Tony Clayton-Lea to more Irish albums than most people would hear in a lifetime. With five books already under his belt, all those album reviews have lead Tony to a new pinnacle in his writing career: 101 Irish Records (You Must Hear Before You Die).

“My year zero was 1977 which was a pivotal year for a lot of people. For me, bands like the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Buzzcocks, the Jam, they just totally spun me around, without a shadow of a doubt.” We both cradle a cup of coffee in the Morrison Hotel, safe from the biting wind outside and just a few metres from the Workman’s Club, venue of tonight’s book launch. “I remember my mother used to say, ‘How can such a lovely boy like you like such aggressive music as that?’ And I suppose she had a point because I’m kind of middle class but… that era, those four or five bands that I’ve mentioned, they just changed my life utterly. And it wasn’t just the music – there was kind of a cultural spin-off with those bands.

“Whenever I’d read their interviews in the NME or Sounds, they would reference writers or filmmakers, and I’d go: ‘I’ve never heard of Frank Kafka before’ or ‘I’ve never heard of Salvador Dali before. Who’s he?’ And I’d check anybody who was referenced as well, so I was instantly engaged and involved with the music, which was life-changing but culturally it led me on to other stuff. I’d start joining the dots. And I love joining the dots – and maybe it’s because I’m so linear – because it creates an A to Z. And I love that, a beginning and an end. It’s a bit like a domino effect. I’m not too fussed what happens in the middle but I do like symmetry, I like that what happens almost has to end, in a cultural context.”

While Irish music is in very healthy state right now, the featured artists and bands in 101 Irish Records are far more than just the current musical crop the zeitgeist thrives on. It’s a rich and varied array of music that presents Tony Clayton-Lea’s own definition of this country’s strongest offerings from Sean O’Riada’s 1959 documentary score for Mise Eire that paved the way for the ‘modern school’ of Irish music, to seminal work by Thin Lizzy and My Bloody Valentine.

“Some of the albums in the book are very well-known, the likes of maybe Astral Weeks by Van Morrison; there’s a few U2 albums in the book: there’s Thin Lizzy and Sinead O’Connor. The usual names that one might suspect would be in a list like this. Having said that, there might be some names that people are surprised aren’t in there but that’s kind of by-the-by, and that’s for people themselves to think, or be surprised by that.

“Your 101 list of albums would be different. to mine; there might be some crossover and some intersections, but it would be different. So people shouldn’t really get annoyed if their favourite album isn’t in the book. I’ve seen those lists myself and I get annoyed if an album [isn’t there], so it’s natural but without sounding at all precious or arrogant about it, it’s just my list in my book. It’s just the way I do it.”

In a way, it seems as though these 101 albums are a partial soundtrack to his life so far.

“There are certain touchstone albums there, there’s no doubt about that. I wouldn’t it want to be a Nick Hornby type of book but I suppose maybe in some ways it is, in a sense that the touchstone albums in there mean more to me than they would anybody else. But I was also conscious of the fact that I didn’t want it to be just touchstone albums – of which there are very few on the list to be honest – I really wanted to just put across in writing how much I love music. Ultimately if there was anything that I hope people will take from the book, it’s not how wonderful or esoteric my tastes are – they aren’t, although there are some fantastic under-the-radar albums in the book – is just how much I dig it. It’s just how much I dig music.”

“I would hope someone interested in music would read through the book and have not heard more than five albums. There’s one album in particular…I envy if you listen to this album for the first time and you love it, I envy you that. For me, it doesn’t get much better than that, to listen to a record and go, ‘oh my god’ or words to that effect. If you get the same feeling that I get from so many pieces of music, for the first time, that’s just fantastic.”

“There are so many Irish albums that I haven’t heard. Over the course of the few months that I was writing the book, I tried to tell as few people as possible that I was doing it. From a professional point of view, I thought it was a really good idea for a book and I didn’t want anyone to steal it. But more importantly, I didn’t want to be infiltrated or to be snowed under by people going, ‘ah, you should have added that album…’ I really wanted it to be my thing. But some albums that people did mention to me, I hadn’t heard. And I was kind of surprised I hadn’t heard them because I’d like to think, looking at me from a distance, that he’s heard everything. But, you know what, I haven’t.

“I love the current strand – the last seven or eight years – of electronica a lot of really great Irish acts are coming out with. I love that Si Schroeder album [Coping Mechanisms], which is in the book. I love Chequerboard – God I love Chequerboard – his album Penny Black is just incredible. I love most music. I hate avant-garde jazz and I hate Country’n’Irish. I love up to about an album’s worth of traditional Irish music. There are four or five trad albums in the book, all of which I love, but when it comes to traditional music in a live context I can only take about half an hour and then I just want to retreat and bring that nice memory with me. Beyond that I get irritable. With the exception of those genres or areas, I’m pretty much open to everything.”

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