By 1995, it seemed the party was over for Cork music. The British rock press had turned on the Sultans of Ping. Succumbing to second album blues the Frank and Walters would not release new material until 1997. “Corkchester”, as the early Nineties scene had been christened by the NME, was slouching towards irrelevance.
That wasn’t to say the city wasn’t brimming with talent. From the gauzy electronica of Starchild to the heartfelt jangling of the Orange Fettishes via Sander’s pummelling goth-pop and the bug-eyed funk of Special Love Brigade, Cork bands had never been more ambitious or eclectic. But Britpop was at full tilt. And closer to home, Dublin had greedily reasserted its primacy over Irish music. Cork was full of great acts. The challenge was convincing anyone beyond the city limits to pay attention.
Enter the Cork Music Resource Co-op, and its Ten By Ten compilation. Operating out of Thompson Bakery’s 1967 “curtain walled” swiss roll factory on MacCurtain Street, the Co-Op had been founded in 1994 to provide assistance to local musicians. And now, 12 months later, came its most ambitious project to date – a CD celebrating ten of Cork’s most promising unsigned acts.
“We invited bands and musicians to submit a demo and then 10 bands were chosen to record their songs professionally in Elm Tree Studios on the Mardyke,” recalls Paul McDermott, then the Co-op’s information officer. “Recording budgets were something that most young bands just couldn't afford, so the idea was to give bands the opportunity to get a decent recording but also to get their track on a professionally produced compilation that would be promoted and distributed nationally.”
The record was a Who’s Who of post-Franks and Sultans contenders. Inhaler, emerging from the wreckage of Emperor of Ice Cream, were there, alongside the aforementioned Starchild, Orange Fettishes, Sander and Special Love Brigade. Joining them were Manhole, widely regarded as the best band in Cork at the time, Boa, Guru and others. This is the story of how it came to be.
“There was loads of talent, but no focus point,” is how Co-op co-founder Angela Dorgan remembers the Cork rock landscape in 1994. This was two years on from the Franks’s debut, Trains, Boats and Planes, and 12 months after the Sultans reached the UK 30 with Casual Sex in the Cineplex.
Dorgan would go on to establish First Music Contact, a national resource centre for independent Irish artists, based at South Great George’s Street in Dublin. In early 1994, she was working at the Triskel Arts Centre having recently completed her postgraduate degree at UCC.
“I had finished my masters and was doing PR for the Triskel. Enda Walsh from Corcadorca [later to write Disco Pigs] was there too. We had a fantastic boss. She let us work on our applications for FAS [in Dorgan’s case, to help fund Cork Music Co-op].
The goal of the Co-op was to “demystify” the business she says. “What we were trying to do was give the music industry back to musicians. To have artists support each other and not make the same mistakes over and over.”
“The Co-op had a practice room on Gerard Griffin Street that bands could use and a drop-in resource centre in the old Thompson's Bakery on MacCurtain Street,” says Paul McDermott. “The Co-op provided information to musicians and bands on all aspects of the music industry.
“It also designed posters and flyers and promoted small gigs. It offered office administrative services to bands – fax machine, photocopying, the use of a telephone and a postal address. It’s hard to imagine how hard it was for bands to access all of these things in a pre-internet age."
“There was no local act attracting crowds comparable to either the 1979-1982 Arcadia or 1989-93 Sir Henry’s golden eras,” adds Paul Kelleher, bassist with Macroom indie outfit Sander.
“Still, there was some very exciting bands around. And maybe more diversity in style than five years before."
“Sander had been called Coil and after getting a record deal in Sweden changed their name again to Flywheel,” says Paul McDermott.
“They released an album called She – one of the truly great “lost” Cork albums. When I hear the song now I get flashbacks. We had posted Coil's demo out to a number of record companies, 4AD and others etc. Eventually a letter came back in to the Co-op. A Beggars Banquet envelope – a beautifully printed envelope with the BB logo on it. It sounds silly now but we were so excited. ‘This is it, this is it, they're going to get signed!’
"We opened the envelope to discover a “Cease and Desist” letter threatening legal action if Coil didn't change their name immediately! Hilarious to think that in those pre-internet days none of us had heard of [UK electro pioneers] Coil, John Balance or Peter Christopherson!"
With labels in London and Dublin showing little interest in Cork, it was decided to record a compilation showcasing the best of the city’s talent. Naturally everyone wanted to be on it. Final say was with the Co-op and its staff.
“I can remember there being a buzz around town when the news was launched and a lot of bands submitted tapes,” says McDermott.
“Lots of minor arguments were had as we tried to whittle the list down to ten acts and of course looking back now the whole thing was incredibly cliquish. At least half the bands who ended up on the CD were in some way connected to the Co-op itself.
"But, sure, that was the point of the whole thing – battling for “your” band to get on the CD. It sounds all so innocent now. We argued, we fell out, we made up and laughed about it.”
“CMRC put out a call for demos,” says Conor O’Toole of the Orange Fettishes. “At the time I think we had done two demo tapes, each with three songs. We threw our hand in and were picked as one of the bands.”
“There was huge diversity,” says Angela Dorgan. “Take acts such as Special Love Bridge and Inhaler – they couldn’t have sounded more different. Manhole were a very typical Cork band. Alan Murphy from Starchild had been in a number of different bands [including The How and Why Insects]. They did really well out of the compilation.”
RECORDING 10 x 10
Having made the cut, the shortlisted artists recorded at Elm Tree at the Mardyke. The studio had been long been a stomping ground for Cork bands, with musicians passing through including Eighties punk outfit the 3355409’s [featuring a pre-Sultans Morty McCarthy] and Franks and Sultans contemporaries LMNO Pelican, who laid down their Red Dot EP there. For Ten by Ten, Dorgan recalls a budget, funded largely through arts grants, of either “three and five grand in old money”.
“The Elm Tree was a lovely warm recording room,” says the Orange Fettishes’ Conor O’Toole. “Fairly small, but great atmosphere. Each band had a one day slot, nine to five more or less And it came out well. We were happy. [frontman] Roy's voice sounds great, raw as f**k, and I always liked the guitar sound I got, channelling [Byrds frontman] Roger McGuinn.
“The band was just delighted to be asked to contribute; we were stone broke,” adds Paul Kelleher of Sander, who featured with their track Caterpillar. “I was milking cows and cutting grass for a living and recording time was really expensive; in the pre-internet it was a great, once-off chance for potential exposure to UK indies…I don’t have any memories of recording day, probably due to nerves.
For the cover image, the Co-op turned to graphic designer Brian O'Shaughnessy. “The painting still exists,” says Angela Dorgan. “We used to have it up in the office.”
Alongside the physical release, two show-case gigs were organised, at Sir Henry’s in Cork and Whelan’s in Dublin. Amidst some disagreements, it was decided Manhole should headline in Whelan’s and Inhaler in Henry’s.
“Everyone on the CD wanted to play the Dublin show, I think” says Jim Morrish, who was involved with the fanzine No More Plastic Pitches (established by Morty McCarthy of Sultans of Ping) and, who, as a printer helped bands around town with posters and flyers. “Presumably because they thought there’d be more A&R scouts at that one.” “Getting a gig in Dublin was the holy grail.
Again it seems sorta quaint and ridiculous now,” says Conor O’Toole. “We eventually managed it in 1996. These were the channels. I seem to remember a constant battle to promote ourselves, beyond the actual music.”
“The CD stands up,” says Paul McDermott. “There are some great songs on it. It's a perfect document of mid-Nineties Cork – those couple of years after The Sultans and the Franks but before the internet changed the face of the music industry and diminished the power of traditional gatekeepers.”