Next weekend’s concert at the Olympia honours the musician, says Ed Power
On Saturday night, Ireland’s leading musicians will pay tribute to The Radiators from Space musician, Philip Chevron.
“Philip was diagnosed with cancer at a stage where they can’t do anything for him,” says Pete Holidai, the band’s guitarist.
“He’s a soccer fan, so we came up with the idea of a testimonial. We are more or less saying Philip is a great player.
“We asked a lot of people to participate and the response has been overwhelming. We will have Horslips, Gavin Friday, Shane MacGowan, Patrick McCabe, Duke Special and Fiona Shaw, and others.” Chevron has battled cancer since 2007.
Last year, he learned his condition was terminal. Ironically, The Radiators from Space had just made a triumphant comeback with their fourth LP, Sound City Beat. It had won the group a new generation of fans and served as a reminder of Chevron’s importance to Irish music.
His legacy with The Radiators from Space speaks for itself. The Dublin punk scene spawned many significant acts, including four plucky Northsiders called U2.
At the time, The Radiators from Space were most likely to achieve an international breakthrough.
It didn’t work out that way. The Radiators from Space imploded in the early ’80s and Chevron put down roots in London, where he met an ambitious, hard-drinking young songwriter, Shane MacGowan.
MacGowan was singing and playing guitar in The Pogues. MacGowan invited Chevron to join as guitarist, freeing himself up to be the frontman.
“Within The Pogues, Philip was very highly rated,” says Holidai. “You can’t under-estimate his importance. He was a good fit for them.
“He wrote some of their most memorable songs, such as ‘Thousands Are Sailing’.”
Holidai has no regrets about The Radiators from Space. They didn’t conquer the world. Then again, that wasn’t their goal. They wanted to write songs that meant something to people.
“That was the difference between us and U2,” Holidai says. “U2 were determined to be the biggest band in the world. We were determined to make the best music we could. I would like to think we both succeeded.”
The Dublin punk scene was enormously vibrant, Holidai says. Punk arguably had a greater impact in Ireland than anywhere else.
“If you look at what happened in the country between ’76 and ’81, the change was immense. It had a massive resonance. Hot Press magazine was founded. 2FM started up, in response to the pirate stations. And you had all these bands coming along. Punk changed a lot.”
Holidai will never forget the first time he met Chevron. The Radiators from Space were holding auditions. Nobody seemed to fit. Then, this cocky kid walked in. They knew they had their man.
“You start thinking about those times in a moment such as this,” says Holidai. “I remember me and Steve [Averill, guitarist, later U2 graphic designer] put this ad in the Herald. We went through a whole sequence of guys. Philip was different. He was really wired, full of ideas. “At the end of the day, I realised that, actually, he was auditioning us rather than the other way around. Within a few weeks, The Radiators had come together and we were rehearsing. Whatever the ‘X’ factor is, Philip had it.”
The Radiators from Space are regarded as one of the great lost bands of punk, but they had a reasonable profile during the heyday of the scene.
Several of their singles were playlisted by the BBC and they were supported, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, by the UK rock press (whose approval was essential). Their downfall was their relationship with their record label.
“We recorded two singles and an album before we went over to the UK,” says Holidai. “In that period, in Ireland, we did 17 gigs. Then, we went to Britain and, over a period of six months, did 75 gigs. It was a big learning curve for us.”
At first, success seemed assured. They toured with Thin Lizzy, who had recently worked with David Bowie producer, Tony Visconti. “We persuaded Tony to record with us. So he did our second album, Ghostown. However, due to record-company problems it didn’t get released until a year after he had finished it.”
This left The Radiators from Space in limbo and proved their undoing. “If you can’t put a record out, you can’t really go on tour. So there was a long delay. We never recovered.”
They tried to regain their early momentum by working with a youthful producer, Hans Zimmer, who would later become one of Hollywood’s biggest soundtrack composers. “He was even younger than us, if you can imagine. It was a vain attempt to have a breakthrough. We had a fair amount of airplay. Ultimately, it all just fizzled out.”
In 2004, after nearly 20 years apart, The Radiators from Space reformed. Under no pressure to prove anything to anyone, this was perhaps the most enjoyable period of their career.
“We got back together to play a show on the first anniversary of Joe Strummer’s death,” says Holidai.
“We quite liked it. However, we didn’t want to be one of those bands that only played old songs. So we went into the studio and wrote a batch of new material. It was a fantastic time. We’ll always have fond memories of what we achieved.”
* The Philip Chevron Testimonial Concert takes place at Olympia, Dublin on Saturday. Performers will include Horslips, Gavin Friday, Shane MacGowan, Patrick McCabe, Duke Special with Fiona Shaw, Camille O’Sullivan. The Radiators from Space will also perform.
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