The summer of 1997 will live long in the memory of music fans. Radiohead released their iconic OK Computer. The Spice Girls topped the American charts. Oasis’s Be Here Now – a cocaine blizzard with a few songs attached – signalled a high watermark for Britpop excess.
In June of that year, meanwhile, one of the greatest Irish albums of the decade quietly appeared in record stores.
Breaking a five-year silence, the Frank and Walters’ Grand Parade was a singular pop document: heartfelt and anthemic, with trace elements of the quirkiness that had made the Cork trio such a sensation in 1992.
Sadly for the Franks, it was the right album at the wrong time. In the early Nineties, independent music was still an underground phenomenon and the Franks’ assured eccentricity found a ready audience – especially among music journalists in Britain, eager to hype the next big thing.
But that was then. By 1997, alternative pop, in the UK at least, had metastasised into a jingoistic monstrosity.
This was the era not only of Rolls-Royce-in-swimming pool album covers (Oasis again obviously) but of Blur singing about drug addiction and of The Verve become million sellers. The Franks were a far better group than in 1992. But nobody cared.
“Bands like Elastica were flavour of the month,” recalls Franks drummer Ashley Keating, speaking ahead of live airings of the Grand Parade, in Dublin and Cork this month.
“We wanted to do something different… we could have played the game and bought suits. It wouldn’t have been us.”
The issue wasn’t merely one of image. In 1996, Go Discs!, which had distributed the Franks’ first record, Trains, Boats and Planes, was taken over by PolyGram. Their vision for the new acquisition was to make it a vehicle for pop acts such as Gabrielle.
The Franks’ heart-on-sleeve indie rock was a bad fit. In fact, the new management were barely aware of the Corkonians.
“The album could have come out a year earlier,” says Keating. “We were just about to release it and they were bought by PolyGram. Everything went mad. A lot of the people we had worked with were sacked. Go! Discs still existed in a sense.
"They were using it for acts such as Gabrielle. It became less of an indie label – more of a pop one. There was an element of them not knowing who we were. We wanted out. We didn’t want to be on a major label.”
The Franks, it might be argued, were largely to blame for their dire circumstances. Trains, Boats and Planes had made them bone fide pop stars, with the single ‘After All’ famously seeing the group perform on Top of the Pops.
More careerist musicians would have capitalised on that momentum by putting out a second long player as quickly as possible. Nothing fades faster than the attention of a music fan – as the Franks discovered in due course.
“It was all probably a bit too much for us,” says Paul Linehan, the Frank and Walters’ frontman. “With our first album we were a bit overwhelmed by the fame. We weren’t used to it. We were thrown into it. It was hard to fathom.
"We made it in England before we made it in Ireland. And England is such a big country population wise – if you were in the NME or Melody Maker or Select, it had a big impact.”
“The Franks came along at the right time,” remembers Keith Cullen, who signed the group to his London-Irish label Setanta and became their manager.
“It was great how well it went with the press. I guess it was a surprise. We were too busy getting on with it to reflect. It worked in the UK at first because at that time Ireland still had that insecurity: ‘if someone else likes it then it must be good’.
"Any Irish band had to leave the country to get noticed by their own people, They were funny and friendly and everyone who met them liked them.”
The Franks were undoubtedly appreciative of the acclaim. But the shy and thoughtful Linehan, especially, found it surreal too – one reason the band moved back to Cork in 1994, after several years in London.
“It was fun on one level. It was also weird. You are just a human being yet you have all this adulation. People suddenly care for your opinion about world politics. Success doesn’t make you more intelligent. All it does it maybe make you a little more confident.”
After they had toured Trains, Boats and Plains into the ground, Cullen was minded to give the group all the time they required to produce a follow-up. At Go! Discs, the opinion was that they should strike while the media was still in their corner. A rush-released second record would be better than yawning silence.
“There was a little bit of [pressure],” says Linehan. “We told them, ‘The songs will come when they were ready’. We were writing songs – it wasn’t as if we were twiddling our thumbs. But I wrote all the songs.
"It wasn’t like the Beatles, where three members wrote them. It is a slow process. And of course there’s the difficult second album syndrome. We had used up all your material for the first record. We were looking for new inspirations.”
The band took too long to write the songs, reckons Cullen.
“Paul wanted it to be a classic album song-wise. And it was. But the momentum had slipped and the music scene had changed. Also the issues with the label hurt the album a lot. There was a lot of corporate bullshit when Go! Discs got bought out and that sunk things really. The media were looking to move on to another thing and we got lost in that.
“On reflection the band should have been less available on the first album. When you’re hungry and people want to pay attention you’ll always take the spotlight.”
The quirky personas the Franks had cultivated with singles such as ‘Fashion Crisis Hits New York’ – and which were subsequently exaggerated in the UK music press – were an issue too.
With their oversized t-shirts and pudding-bowl hair, they were pigeonholed as wacky – a novelty act almost. Nobody was prepared for Grand Parade – a record dripping heartache and ennui.
“It probably didn’t help us,” reflects Linehan.
“It was a striking image – it got us noticed. It’s good to have an image as a band. But people weren’t bright enough to see past that and recognise how serious the songs were. By the time Grand Parade came along we’d changed our image and just wore normal clothes.”
Grand Parade cost £250,000 to record – a blockbuster sum by today’s standards. In addition to their ambition to create a classic the Franks wanted to push back against the vogue in British rock at that time for spiky, post-punk – as embodied by the aforementioned Elastica. Hence the decision to recruit Gus Dudgeon, producer of Bowie’s Space Oddity, to mix several numbers.
“We didn’t want that that three minute thing. We wanted it to be epic,” says Keating. “A lot of people couldn’t understand. We were locked into our own world and speaking in these mad Cork accents. He got it – deciphered what we were trying to do and gave us this lushness we hadn’t been able to achieve with all these big name mixers.”
Grand Parade very nearly slipped between the cracks. Despite the quarter million investment, there was little will at PolyGram to put it out.
The Franks’ request to take ownership of the LP was initially rebuffed and they had to talk their way into a meeting with senior management to plead their case.
“It was a nightmare,” says Keating. “We literally went and begged them. We said, ‘you don’t want us – we definitely don’t want to be with you’. We were able to meet one of the head honchos. Our career had been on hold for a year, we told him. He told us to take the record and go. We were totally disillusioned – with the UK music scene and with the music business.”
Still, they persevered and over the years Grand Parade has found an audience. The band won’t object to it being described as their finest album and have enjoyed taking it on the road.
Nostalgia is something they are wary of, having witnessed a few too many Nineties peers dining out on old glories. Where Grand Parade is concerned though, a victory lap is more than overdue.
“We’ve done some of those nostalgia gigs and you see bands who haven’t plugged in an instrument for years,” says Keating. “And you can tell bands that have kept at it.We just played two gigs at the Water Rats in London and the reaction was really positive.
“Grand Parade nearly broke us – we drove ourselves bananas. But it stood to us and we’re very proud of it.”
- The Frank and Walters will play Grand Parade in its entirety at Academy in Dublin on December 22;and at at Cork Opera House, New Year’s Eve