As the legendary house night in Sir Henrys marks 30 years, Des O’Driscoll looks back on the Cork dance club that defined a generation.
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 30 years since the first Sweat will culminate this weekend with two sold-out parties at Dali 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 younger record collector. The Dubliner ended up asking the Bishopstown teenager to play a few tunes at a night he was running in Redz on Liberty Street.
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 so 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 on the stall was cheap, but it was an incongruous one to have nestled in among the fish shops long before the market took on the trendy foodie reputation it has today. As Cork’s burgeoning crew of clubbers would gather to hear the latest vinyl imports, 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.
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, as it was still an underground phenomenon unserved by radio stations.
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 sound system.
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 sound system 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.
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 that 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 forever 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 in Ireland and on the international circuit.
As Fish Go Deep, 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.
This is an updated version an article first published in 2013 Dali (former Pav) in Cork will host Sweat 30 next Friday and Saturday. Some tickets will be available on the door for the Friday
Upcoming releases from Fish Go Deep include ‘Give In To Wonder’ on San Diego label Seasons; and ‘Drip Down’ on Swedish label Brandy.
A selection of tunes from the Sir Henrys era can be found in the Spotify playlist ‘Sir Henrys Sweat Cork classics’.
On next Friday, this page will have a piece from writer Lisa McInerney reflecting on her times in Sir Henrys.
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.
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. Classic final’s included Nayobe’s ‘I Love The Way You Love Me’, ‘Love Is Not Enough’ by Joanna Law, and ‘Some Kind of Heaven’ by BBG. .
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. Later, Stevie G (Stephen Grainger) took over with a combination of soul and hip-hop during a particularly rich period for these genres.