Thirty years on from David Gray’s original release of White Ladder,traces the slow-burn success of Ireland’s best-selling album back to gigs at Nancy Spains in Cork and a push by RTÉ show No Disco.
ONE evening in 1992 — the precise date is so obscure nobody can quite place it — a scrawny 24-year-old with close-cropped hair shuffled on stage in Cork and picked up a guitar. He performed to a hushed audience, though the silence may have had something to do with the fact that there were at most 20 in attendance.
Few who had made their way to Nancy Spain’s on Barrack Street for what is believed to be David Gray’s first Irish performance were blown away by what they saw. Gray was ardent and intense; his songs had more of an edge than was usual with troubadours. But he was also raw and clearly ill-inclined to compromise his sound. Nobody could have suspected they were watching a future superstar.
Yet just six years later the Manchester-born, Welsh-raised singer was the country’s favourite adopted son, his album White Ladder on its way to becoming the best selling record ever in Ireland.
In 2003 he would perform to 30,000 at Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney — one of the crowning glories as he ascended to whatever passes for the Irish equivalent of a national treasure.
White Ladder was released late in 1998. As it marks its 20th anniversary the scale of Gray and the album’s accomplishments has, if anything, grown even more impressive. At a time when physically owning a record is regarded as a quaint affectation, it is astonishing to consider that, within 18 months of White Ladder’s release, it was estimated that one in four Irish households owned a copy.
On its way to shifting 350,000 units in Ireland (globally the tally stands at seven million), White Ladder wove itself into the fabric of Irish culture. You couldn’t go to a house party without encountering Gray’s grainy voice. It seemed to pump constantly from radios as stations spun ‘This Year’s Love’, ‘Sail Away’ and ‘Babylon’ on repeat. There was ubiquitous and then there was David Gray.
The story of David Gray and White Ladder is also that of music in Ireland in the early 1990s. Before the internet, cultural microclimates still existed and the country was in many ways a place part.
Gray was selling out venues here when he couldn’t fill the back of a pub in the UK. Moreover, labels in Britain and the US paid attention only after White Ladder had spent months topping the Irish charts. To a degree that is unimaginable today, this was a rags to glory story forged in Ireland.
The love affair had blossomed with his debut album, 1993’s A Century Ends. The record was championed by No Disco, a scrappy music show cobbled together on a shoe-string by RTÉ Cork, from its new studios at Father Matthew Street. But his first concert, at Nancy Spain’s had, in fact, pre-dated No Disco and may have helped turn the producers on to his music.
“We got 20 people through the door. He was virtually unknown at the time,” says Ally Ó Riada, one of the promoters who had invited Gray to the club at the back of the back. Not long after a pre-fame Cranberries would pay the same room, again to the proverbial two men and a dog. Today it is a beer garden.
“He was alone,” recalls Ally Ó Riada. “He hadn’t even got Clune [Craig McLune] his drummer with him.”
Within six months of No Disco championing him, the difference in his profile was striking. Gray was booked to play Dublin late in 1993. He arrived to find a queue snaking around the corner. “I turned up at Whelan’s and had to fight my way through the crowd, who I presumed were queuing for another venue in the same building,” the singer would remember.
“I couldn’t believe it was anything to do with me. No Disco had been playing my video for Shine. There was a whole crowd interested to see what I was about. It was the first time I sold out a show.”
White Ladder wasn’t yet a twinkle in his eye and, with his career bottoming out in the Britain, it was difficult to keep going. The visits to Ireland refuelled Gray, convincing him not to give up.
“There was a huge contrast,” Gray told me once. “Particularly when I was starting out. People were so cynical here [ in the UK]. I couldn’t get anywhere. It was real cynicism you know. A real ‘impress me’… this will never work, an earnest troubadour with an acoustic guitar’. In Ireland, none of that seemed to matter. It was just like, ignore whatever style the music’s in and feel the feeling within it or listen to what’s being said. You know – it’s very different in this country [Britain].”
“Every few months we’d go over there and get a huge infusion of Celtic passion. We’d come back charged up, full of belief. It told us that we weren’t wasting our time, that there were people out there who understood and appreciated what we were doing.”
“He broke Cork before he broke anywhere else,” says Ó Riada. “He was selling out Nancy’s when he was getting tiny crowds in Dublin. I remember one time Glen Hansard supported him and they both came on at the end. It was an amazing gig.”
“Cork is the epicentre of all things David Gray,” agrees Donal Scannell, today a label boss and promoter but in 1993 one of the original producers of No Disco.
“Cork Opera House is his favourite venue in the world to play. Without No Disco, David Gray may not have blown up and that pumped out of Cork. David Gray was the first act that No Disco broke and that show wouldn’t have worked from anywhere in Ireland. Colm O’Callaghan [No Disco producer] is from Cork and without him No Disco wouldn’t have happened.”
Ó Riada’s memories are of a quietly spoken young man — introverted, a bit intense, but, on the surface, unremarkable.
“He didn’t drink or smoke. He just seemed like a nice guy — focused and a bit shy.”
Gray’s first two albums had been with Hut, a “fake indie” offshoot of Virgin records which also put out early LPs by The Smashing Pumpkins, The Auteurs, The Verve. His third, Sell Sell Sell, was on EMI — and another flop (despite his shameless stab at writing a hit with ‘Late Night Radio’).
With little to indicate Gray was going to breakthrough, he was dropped. This was the heyday of Britpop, and Gray was as far removed from cheeky chappie as was imaginable.
A less determined artist would have packed it in. Yet Gray wasn’t for turning. He financed White Ladder with the proceeds of an American tour supporting the Dave Matthews Band (Matthews would put out the LP in the US on his own label). The cover image was by No Disco presenter Donal Dineen — at that point one of the few people even vaguely connected to the music industry who believed in him.
White Ladder did not immediately set the world ablaze. Even in Ireland, the initial response was muted. Released to little fanfare on November 27 1998, it crept into the charts at 25.
Yet word slowly spread and, in January 2001, the album at last reached number one — a slow-build unthinkable in today’s music industry. It stayed at the top for six weeks — by which point labels and promoters in the UK realised something was happening. Re-released in Britain the following May, it blazed up the charts. After nearly a decade of toil, David Gray was finally an overnight sensation.
“White Ladder has amazing timing,” says Donal Scannell. “A piece of kit came out called the Roland Groovebox. Because of that fiddling with beats was something broke David could do in his home. He embraced the sounds in his head and turned them into something timely.
“You have to remember that David came through the rave scene in the UK. His first gigs were all in chill-out rooms of warehouse parties. I remember seeing him play a tent in Glastonbury with about 50 people in the middle of the day all still wrecked from the night before. His first two albums were the perfect post-party soundtrack and he was accepted by that crowd. With White Ladder he made party music and it all went whoosh.”
White Ladder transformed Gray’s life, but he soon grew a bit fed-up of the hype. What especially upset him was that, as an artist with “hits”, there was an expectation that he would play certain songs night after night, no matter that this was increasingly alienating him from his own material.
In particular he became deeply ambivalent about ‘Babylon’, his biggest smash. “It’s ironic, isn’t it?, The song which, to a very large extent, I owe my career proceeded to drive me absolutely insane,” he told me a few years ago.
“I’m not like Lionel Richie. I can’t churn out a hit night after night on stage. I need to have an emotional connection, a way into the song. For a long time, with ‘Babylon’, I didn’t have that. I felt sort of inert to me because I’d played it so often.”
Nor did it take very long for a backlash to build in the UK, where the media, by turns baffled by and aghast at his success, labelled him “Grey David” and suggested that he represented the first link in the singer-songwriter chain that lead to James Blunt.
“Everybody wants to know my opinion of James bloody Blunt,” he told me in 2007. “ I’ve developed a deep loathing of him purely on the basis of having to answer questions about him over the past two years.”
Such was Gray’s talent, he would have eventually have found a following, believes Scannell. But it was Ireland that got him, and White Ladder, first and which made possible what would follow.
“It only takes a few passionate people in the right place at the right time to help shove the door open,” he says. “David was and is an immense talent… He would have eventually broken through somewhere I believe. He was too good not to.
“Having said all that we love great storytellers in Ireland – it’s what we all aspire to. What’s better than a roomful of people hanging on your every word. David is great at doing this thing that loads of Irish people think is a great thing to be able to do.”