It was thirty years ago that Tom Prendergast set up a record company in America.
A different time. Ireland in the eighties could be a grim place, and Limerick native Prendergast had lit out for the territory early in the decade: “I was 27, not up to much. I had two friends out in the States, one of them came back and said he’d pay for my flight out, so I said, ‘why not’.” Prendergast settled in Hoboken (“Home of Frank Sinatra”) and could look across the river to Manhattan, but it wasn’t all plain sailing.
“I was illegal for many years. That was significant in that I didn’t go home for five or six years, which meant I didn’t see my family. It was a hindrance, certainly. But when there was an amnesty I got a green card, and eventually became a US citizen.
“I got a job in a bar like any good immigrant, saved my money, and in Hoboken I was working in Maxwell’s, a music bar, and used the money I’d saved to open a record shop with two other American guys of Irish ancestry —Steve Fallon, co-owner of Maxwell’s, and Bill Ryan.
“We did for that a while and then started the record company, Bar/None, in 1986 to put out a record by a band called Rage To Live, started by a guy called Glenn Morrow.”
Morrow had been in another band, The Individuals, and was plugged into the scene. The Rage To Live record went well and Morrow brought in another band for Prendergast to work with.
“That was They Might Be Giants, and their first album was a huge hit. We were up and running. It was the early days of MTV but we got their video on MTV, which was a big help.
“Because it was so early in the lifespan of MTV they were literally looking for stuff, and They Might Be Giants were ambitious, intelligent, hard-working guys.
“We sold about ten thousand copies of that first album, but when the video popped up on MTV — a smart, quirky video — within a month we’d sold one hundred thousand. Up and running, as I say.”
They put out plenty of other records after that. Prendergast can check off the successes — “Freedy Johnson did well, we got into lounge music with ‘Space Age Bachelor Pad Music’, Edwyn Collins’ ‘A Girl Like You’ came out on our label because we were friendly with another label in Britain, Setanta, which was run by another Irish guy, Keith Cullen.
“We put out an Alex Chilton record too, which was a great, great record.”
Was having a record shop and discovering bands living the dream?
“My own record shop? Are you kidding me? I was always into music, and I’d done some musical things at home — putting on bands — but I didn’t really see how you could make a living out of in Ireland.
“We had the money to start the record label but we didn’t need all that much, maybe six thousand dollars; it cost less to start the record shop than the label, because you had to pay for stock and rent and so on.
“Getting involved in the ‘industry’ didn’t stop me loving music. I got to see so much live music, and in New York, where you can see something amazing, and different, every night.
And there were unexpected spin-offs. A couple of years ago They Might Be Giants rolled through Dublin on tour. Prendergast headed to see them.
“I went backstage to chat to them, and John Linnell from the band said to me that evening, ‘you changed my life, you gave me the opportunity to do what I’ve been doing for the rest of my life.’ “That was a proud moment for me. You don’t think of that when you’re doing it, but it was great.”
Tom Prendergast headed for the States 30 years ago without much of a plan. Before long he’d opened a music store and started his own label, he tells