Steve Wall and The Stunning are hitting the road again with their best-loved songs, writes Marjorie Brennan
ONE could forgive Steve Wall for feeling a little bit nostalgic of late. It is just over 30 years since he and his brother Joe formed The Stunning, the Irish band that became legendary for their energetic live performances and eclectic song catalogue, including the iconic anthem ‘Brewing Up a Storm’.
That 30-year milestone is now being marked with a national tour and the release of Twice Around the World, a revamped version of the band’s 1992 hit album Once Around the World. Singer-songwriter Wall sounds like he still can’t quite believe The Stunning is preparing to go on the road again to promote a new album. He recalls with much fondness the band’s glory days on the live circuit around Ireland, when they were top of a long list of homegrown acts that would regularly pack large venues.
“They were the halcyon days of the live circuit in Ireland. There are bands and artists coming out with amazing stuff now — they have the freedom to experiment and record at home. But the live circuit has been decimated by many factors, including social habits and economics.”
Wall gives one example of how live gigs were the lifeblood of many venues in the 1980s and 1990s.
“Back then, you would do a tour to promote a single. We did a tour in 1991 to promote ‘Heads are Gonna Roll’… I found a poster for the tour in a box there a year or two ago. There was 22 dates around Ireland. Two were in Dublin but the rest were all over the country; going through that list now, five of those places are left. There were venues like the Highland in Newmarket — a small town in East Cork, with a chipper and a few pubs but we could be playing to a thousand people on a Sunday night.”
Another thing younger music fans might find it difficult to imagine was the sheer volume of letters the band received. An old fan letter Wall recently posted on social media, signed ‘Curvy Birdie from Kilnamona’, was greeted with much mirth — and recognition of the teenage crushes the band inspired.
“I only wish I could find more, we had bags full of those letters,” says Wall. “We had a post office box in
Galway, we used to get so many. I remember it was my birthday and I got presents in the post, one of them was from a girl who sent me a tie, it was like something you would buy for your dad for Christmas. We would get envelopes covered in lipstick and perfume and all that. There was a real innocence to it, it was great.”
However, it’s not all looking back with rose-tinted glasses for Wall. After the band broke up in 1994, he joined forces with his brother Joe in another successful act The Walls. When The Stunning got back together in 2003, they found they could still draw the crowds, even if the fans had a few more grey hairs than before. Their second act has turned out to be just as enduring.
“It’s kind of strange, we are doing bigger gigs now, and bigger crowds. We are scratching our heads but at the same time, we don’t want to overdo it. We do a certain amount a year and everyone still gets to do their jobs.”
In Wall’s case, one of those jobs is as an actor. He has appeared in shows such as Moone Boy, Vikings and Rebellion, and his talents as a voiceover artist have also been employed on many RTÉ shows. He plays the lead role in a Dutch-produced feature film about the last days of the legendary jazz musician Chet Baker, due to be released this year.
“It will be in the festivals this year; it might spark some stuff for me, we’ll see. All the rest of the lads have other stuff going on. I haven’t been writing at all because I’ve been so busy with stuff… I’d love to do a solo record with different guests.”
One could argue that Wall has never quite received the credit he deserves for his talents as a songwriter. The fact that the band didn’t achieve the same level of success outside Ireland was a source of disappointment for the band, and their fans, but Wall is sanguine about it now, saying the sheer variety of the band’s output probably worked against them.
“The Stunning were always very diverse musically. Back then, that was our downfall because record labels ran a mile. We never got an international record deal because they couldn’t figure out what kind of band we were. They were thinking about an end place, the record shop, where can we sell this?
“Our first song ‘Got to Get Away’, was a country song; then ‘Half-Past Two’, that was like Burt Bacharach; then there was ‘Romeo on Fire’, which had a kind of Latin, Mexicano vibe; then you had ‘Brewing Up a Storm’, which had that broody, Doorsy feel.
But funnily, in the long term, that has actually stood to us because the music-lovers don’t mind that.”
The release of Twice Around the World has allowed the band revisit some of their best-loved songs and give them a fresh sound. The album also features a bonus track of ‘Brighten Up My Life’, which received heavy radio play when it was released last year.
“Since we got back together in 2003, the songs sounded way better when we played them. We just decided we were going to re-record it.
“A lot of the songs sound exactly the same but the production standard is higher. In the case of ‘She’s Not There’, we were going for the Manchester beat at that time, but we have completely changed it and now it’s more Crosby, Stills Nash, and Young, it’s gorgeous.”
While The Stunning are still playing to large crowds, the type of venue and performance has changed somewhat.
Last year, they played an intimate acoustic gig as part of Live at St Lukes and their Cork gig this month will be in the rarefied surrounds of the Opera House. It’s a far cry from the hormone-fuelled gigs they played back in the day.
“I remember a few cans whizzing past my head at gigs,” laughs Wall.
“It would usually be some disgruntled young lad with too many hormones and beer in him.”
Twice Around the World is out on March 16; The Stunning play Cork Opera House on March 17. For other dates, see thestunning.net
- Brewing Up a Storm: “Everyone thinks that is about heading out and going mad. But it is actually about a friend of mine who had issues with mental illness. “Fire in your eyes, in your head, in your touch”: that is about him during a manic episode and trying to help him.”
- Heads Are Gonna Roll: “One of my favourite Stunning songs. When we moved to Co Clare, there was an old woman that my father would have known when he was a child, she was still around and she used to call in and see us. She would read tea leaves. I used that in the song.”
- Girl with a Curl: “I wrote that about a girl I saw in a nightclub in South Anne Street. She had red hair and it was flying around the place on the dancefloor.”
- Romeo’s On Fire: “At the time, I was listening to Astral Weeks by Van Morrisson. Every single morning when I got up I would put it on. Romeo’s On Fire was basically me trying to capture the soulful energy that Van captured on that album, especially ‘Sweet Thing’.”
- Half-Past Two: “That was definitely a love song, it was about a girl I had my eye on. I didn’t know anything about her.”