Marking 25 years since 'Sweat' night in Sir Henrys

Greg Dowling and Shane Johnson recall that some tracks would be hugely popular in Cork but barely gain traction elsewhere
Greg Dowling and Shane Johnson recall that some tracks would be hugely popular in Cork but barely gain traction elsewhere

The story of Sir Henrys and its famous Sweat night has been well told in the past. How a weekly dance night in the Cork venue grew into one of the best house events in Europe in the 1990s, attaining quite a reputation for its amazing atmosphere and the quality of music on offer.

What is really incredible, however, is that the tale of Sir Henrys is still being told. And the two men most responsible for its success, Greg Dowling and Shane Johnson, are still mixing top quality house music. Several events to celebrate 25 years since the first Sweat will culminate this weekend with two sold-out parties at the Pavilion in Cork.

But where did it all begin? Back in the recession-ravaged days of the late 1980s, Cork was a city of emigration, and links with the UK should never be under-estimated in the development of local music culture. While visiting emigrant siblings in London, Johnson would go to the Record and Tape Exchange in Notting Hill and dip into the shop’s slowly-expanding house music section, alongside his regular hip-hop browsing. Back in Cork, Dowling, a Dubliner, had been building a reputation among the city’s ‘alternative’ set for playing music that was a whole lot more attractive than what was on offer at the more conventional meat market discos. Introduced to Johnson, he was struck by the enthusiasm and knowledge of this slightly younger record collector, so invited him to play a few tunes at a night he was running in Redz on Liberty Street. And so the relationship began.

A few weeks later, Dowling was invited by Sir Henry’s manager Sean O’Neill to try a new Thursday night at the South Main Street venue and Sweat was born in November 1988.

Later the duo would start producing their own music under the Fish Go Deep moniker, a name that originated in a record stall they had set-up in the fish section of the English Market.


The rent was cheap, but it was an incongruous stall to have nestled in among the fish shops long before the market took on the trendy foodie reputation it has today. Restraint was required on the volume so as not to upset shoppers and fellow stallholders.

Again, English contacts came in handy for sourcing stock. Dowling had been to Manchester where he hooked up with Russ Marland, a record importer with access to much of the best house music coming out of the US. “He used to provide a lot of the records for the likes of Mike Pickering at the Hacienda, so it meant we were tapping into the same supply as them,” says Johnson. “There was so much good music coming out at the time that the one or two boxes we’d get in every week would always have a couple of classics in them.” Hence the excited huddle of Sweat enthusiasts awaiting each box to be opened, eager to spend about £8 on what would often be only a handful of the 12” copies of the track in all of Europe. Not surprisingly, mixtapes became a solution for people who wanted to hear this music outside of the club.


While the importance of Dowling and Johnson to the club was obvious, a lesser-known component of the Sir Henrys tale is the venue’s soundsystem. As the Sweat began to take off, venue owner Jerry Lucey – despite those in the rock establishment who claimed this dance music phenomenon would be a shortlived phase — decided to bypass the weekly rental of a soundsystem and take a punt on a longterm investment in a proper PA. Lucey, who passed away last year, had been in the business for decades, had dealt with the likes of Don King and brought such acts as Bill Haley and Roy Orbison to his Cork venues. To source his PA, Lucey headed off to a trade fair in Paris with his trusted team of sound engineer Denis Herlihy and company accountant Catherine Cogan.

Cogan’s daughter Natalie, a UCC student on an Erasmus scheme near Antibes, was drafted in as translator and Herlihy soon set his sights on a Nexo SI 2000 rig. Its 10k of power came with a price tag of about €17,000. A lot of money in those days? You bet, especially given the less-is-more outlook of most Irish venue owners of that era. “We definitely ended up with the best sound system in the country,” remembers Herlihy. “We were also the first in Ireland to fly the PA from the ceiling when others were still groundstacking. It gave us amazing clarity and great coverage.”

While Herlihy had a slightly-nervous first few weeks eyeing the heavy speakers hanging over the crowded dance floor, the DJs were loving the experience. “The sound was so clear we never had to ram the music down people’s throats,” remembers Johnson. So, when styles got faster or harder in other clubs and cities, the Sweat duo didn’t have to follow the herd. Anyway, the system was a perfect fit for some of the more subtle, stripped-back tracks they favoured.


“Sometimes tracks would take a few weeks of playing to really reveal themselves, both to us and the crowd,” says Johnson. It’s a factor which also helps explain why some tracks were huge in Cork without gaining much traction elsewhere.

While Dowling and Johnson will be for ever associated with Sir Henry’s, it’s worth remembering that their departure in 2001 means the duo have been playing away from the venue as long as they were in it. Since then, they’ve produced dozens of their own tracks, done numerous remixes for other artists and continue to do their bit behind the decks. Their ongoing embrace of contemporary sounds ensures they’ve dodged any elder lemon status, and a whole new generation of DJs, producers and clubbers still look to the duo as a reference point. The beat really does go on.

* So Far So Deep Vol 1, a compilation of 20 of Fish Go Deep’s own tunes, will be released on Friday via www.fishgodeep.bandcamp.com

THE MUSIC

In the early days of Sweat, Greg Dowling and Shane Johnson played a variety of dancefloor genres, with hip-hop and ska filling out the set alongside the emerging house genre. The visit of Mike Pickering — later the man who gave us M-People — from the Hacienda around 1989 would be an educational experience for the duo. “He was a great programmer and it was a real opener for us to see how the music could be presented,” says Johnson.

THE BREAKDOWN

House music all night long? Not quite. Right into the late 1990s, sets would feature an interlude of non-house sounds such as Mamma Said Knock You Out by LL Cool J and the Smith and Mighty mix of Cool With Nature by Carlton. The end of night track also became an institution in its own right. Seeing some of Cork’s hardest cases melting with emotion at the first strains of such soft-centred tracks was a sight to behold. Classics included Nayobe’s I Love The Way You Love Me, and Love Is Not Enough by Joanna Law, and even now, those last few tracks of a night are often an opportunity to throw in something from leftfield.


BACK BAR

While many clubs had a chill-out zone, in Sir Henry’s the back bar was associated with reggae and hip-hop. In the early Sweat years, Mark Ring aka Donkeyman (so named because his family owned the Donkeys Ears pub on Union Key) would belt out reggae dancehall tracks imported from Jamaica and England. Stevie G (Stephen Grainger) then took over with a combination of soul and hip-hop during a particularly rich period for both genres.

JOIN THE FUTURE

While their sets still feature a few classic house tracks, the vast majority of Dowling and Johnson’s selections are current productions, and while Berlin still leads the way, there seems to be no shortage of quality material coming out of Ireland. “We did a two-hour radio show recently of all Irish tracks,” explains Johnson, “and had no trouble filling it with really good stuff. Guys like John Daly and Chymera have been doing it for quite a while now, and other homegrown talents out there at the moment include Shane Linehan, Deep Future and Nigel Mason.”

TOP TUNES THROUGH FOUR DECADES

While they say it would be impossible to choose 10 favourite tracks, Greg Dowling and Shane Johnson did select a few from each era that have stood the test of time:

String Free — Phortune — 1988 : One of the tracks DJ Pierre got around to when he wasn’t inventing acid house. Incredible piano-driven energy that pays tribute to Chicago’s blues roots and hasn’t left our record boxes in 25 years.





Everybody Get Down (Tribal Chant Mix) — Deepstate II — 1990: A massive rolling bassline powers this early Danny Tenaglia hip-house gem.

Sueno Latino (Derrick May Remix) — Sueno Latino — 1992: The great innovator reworks the great Italian rework of the great E2-E4. Three generations of great.

Phylyps Trak II — Basic Channel — 1994: Timeless, granite-hard dub house.

70’s Trip — Glenn Underground — 1997: An immaculate fusion of New York disco and Chicago house with a dizzying synth solo.





Bliss (Masters At Work Mix) — Mutiny — 1999: A gorgeous love song treated to sublime levels of production and playing Steely Dan on the dancefloor.





Enjoy It Now — Tortured Soul — 2003: A simple and straightforward positive song, beautifully realised. We (and the band) will never forget the entire crowd taking over on singing duties when they played it live at Go Deep in Cork.





The Day We Met For Coffee (Afefe Iku Coffee Break Mix) — Osunlade — 2006: Completely beatless melodic epic that can drive the right dancefloor nuts. Carte blanche to dancehowyalike.





Stoned Autopilot (C2 Version) — Martin Buttrich — 2009: Carl Craig displays his mastery of the riff in this monumental slab of techno.





Speak Your Mind — Penner & Muder — 2011

One of the standout songs at Go Deep in recent years and a prime example of the only-big-in-Cork phenomenon.


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