When Elvera Butler heard about a mobile studio in Belfast that had once recorded the Rolling Stones she imagined something chic and state-of-the-art.
So it came as a shock, to put it mildly, to see a rickety caravan stutter to a halt outside the Arcadia Ballroom on Lower Glanmire Road in Cork on the evening of August 30 1980.
On a grey afternoon, with a hint of rain threatening, it looked like something from Carry On Camping.
“I was nervous,” recalls Butler, then one of Cork’s leading live music promoters. In just a few hours she would attempt history by capturing on tape four leading lights of the city’s embryonic punk scene. And yet so much could go wrong.
Was the rudimentary studio up to the task of recording the quadruple threat of Nun Attax, Mean Features, Urban Blitz and a new group called Microdisney? For that matter, would anybody even turn up?
“You needed 800 people to create an atmosphere,” says Butler.
“It was just four 'support' bands. You wanted them to draw a sufficient crowd for it to look good.”
As darkness fell over Cork’s northside, there seemed a real danger of the project sputtering out prematurely.
The studio engineers had not brought enough two-inch tape to record all of the performances that night. There was enough for just six tracks. A chill descended.
“It was Saturday night in Cork. Nowhere was open,” says Butler. “You couldn’t get any two-inch tape. The guys in the mobile… in that respect they messed up.”
Yet this apparent misfortune turned out to be a blessing of sorts. With just three songs on each side, Kaught At The Kampus landed like a short-sharp shock. It was a classic case of less adding up to more.
Nun Attax, the biggest name on the Cork punk scene and fronted by the charismatic Finbarr Donnelly, took up the entirety of side one.
Their jerky rhythms blended with a blazing urbane wit. Donnelly was larger than life, as much poet and a natural outsider as entertainer. He, more than anyone, cemented the stereotype of the “wacky” Cork band.
Side two was split between Mean Features, Urban Blitz and Microdisney.
Each had just one song with which to make an impression. But they seized their moment and, in the process, help immortalise Cork punk.
“It was meant to be demo,” says Butler.
“Something bands would have to show. And then we thought – why not make a record? It was at the threshold of a new generation of Cork music. But nobody knew it would be of interest 40 years later.
“The scene was amazing,” says Mean Features guitarist Liam Heffernan.
"I used to stand up front watching the guitarists. That’s how I learned properly. It was a kind of mimicry.”
Cork in the late Seventies was a city on the precipice, with traditional industry in decline and unemployment rising.
The Catholic Church still maintained a stranglehold; life could feel grey, aimless and suffocating.
One response to this was a thriving punk and post-punk scene. Its first flickerings took the form of Adolf Grunt, fronted by Aidan McCarthy (son of Dixies leader Joe Mac).
But McCarthy’s life ended tragically when he was killed in a car crash in Two-Mile Borris in Tipperary, along with his wife Linda, driving home from a gig in Limerick in November 1981.
Adolf Grunt also featured Dennis Herlihy, who would go on to become a sound engineer of note on the Irish music scene before his death last year.
Second on the scene were Nun Attax, led by the charismatic and larger than life Donnelly.
“He was very outgoing, very fun – as well as being profound and deep,” says Nun Attax guitarist Ricky Dineen. “I always say he was a lot scarier looking than he was in real life”.
Elvera Butler had meanwhile come to Cork from Thurles to study English, Philosophy and Psychology at UCC.
Upon graduating she was appointed Ents Officer by the Student Union. Under UCC regulations, however, she had to be enrolled as a student to take up the position.
So she undertook an MA in Philosophy and began putting on gigs in the Campus Kitchen, a stygian space in the bowels of the Science Building.
“The Campus Kitchen was small, with a makeshift stage, so it was mainly Irish bands,” says Butler.
“The Boomtown Rats played there the night they had some a&r men to see them and got their record deal. Often it was [local acts] Stagalee, Jimi Slevin, Sleepy Hollow.”
In November 1977 she was offered the use of the Arcadia, a 1,000 capacity room opened by Michael Prendergast in 1924, initially as a skating rink, which also was a major venue for the showband scene.
Having played their Cork debut at the Stardust (later the Grand Parade Hotel), an uppity Dublin band called U2 would, for instance, make the Arcadia their home from home.
“U2 had the opportunity to play to a far bigger audience than they would ever have played in their home town at that point,” says Cork music afficionado John Byrne.
“They obviously learned some of their stage-craft there.”
As with CBGBs in New York or the Roxy in London, a scene began to coalesce around the “Arc”.
Mick Lynch, future frontman of Mean Features and Stump, had a job there collecting glasses. Nun Attax played every few weeks, opening for whatever big UK band was rolling through.
And Microdisney, who had formed from the ashes of the earlier group Constant Reminders (which also featured Lynch), performed their very first gig at the hanger-like venue.
“There were a lot of regulars, young guys and girls,” Butler remembers.
“As soon as they showed interest in forming a band, I’d give them a support slot.”
“What the Cork folks were doing then was seen as superior almost – at least in spirit – to what was happening in post-punk Dublin,” says John Byrne.
“Studios were really expensive at that time,” recalls Butler. “We thought about getting in a mobile to record some of the bands. I was naive, I suppose.
"Somehow I acquired information about this mobile studio in Belfast that was state of the art and had been used to record the Rolling Stones.”
She remembers the concert vividly. With a 1,000 capacity venue and no big international name on the bill, she had fretted about drawing a sufficient crowd. She stood outside as darkness crept over the city. And then she saw the kids arriving.
A handful at first, followed by a steady procession. And she knew it was going to work out. “I have a vivid memory of sitting in a car outside,” says Liam Heffernan of Mean Features.
“Giordaí Ua Laoghaire, who was then with Microdisney [and would later play with Donnelly in Five Go Down to the Sea], was next to me, tuning my guitar. It was very exciting.”
Butler recalls pressing upto 500 copies of the record, with Rough Trade in England taking some copies and the bulk of the others being sold through local record shops or mail order.
Kaught At The Kampus brought national attention to Cork’s punk movement, with Dave Fanning at the new national pop station 2FM playing it regularly.
However, as well as marking the high point of the Cork scene it also served as a final curtain. The following February a fire would rip through the Stardust Nightclub in Artane in Dublin, killing 48.
One of the consequences of the Stardust was a tightening of regulations for venues and nightclubs, and a hike in insurance premiums. Downtown Kampus at the Arcadia was no longer financially viable. “I tried to revive it by putting on gigs at the Savoy on Patrick’s Street,” says Butler.
“It was seated, it was upstairs… it just didn’t work.”
The bands on Kaught At The Kampus were soon going on to greater things. Microdisney, slimming down the songwriting core of Cathal Coughlan and Sean O’Hagan, moved to London, where they signed to Rough Trade.
Nun Attax would change their name to Five Go Down to the Sea in 1983 and also move to the UK capital, where Alan McGee of Creation booked them for his Living Room Club Night in Camden.
There was a tragic postscript, however, with Donnelly drowning at the Serpentine Pond in Hyde Park in 1989 at age 27.
The future was just as bittersweet for Mean Features. In 1983 frontman Lynch took the ferry to London and formed Stump. Enjoying considerable acclaim, they were featured on the covers of both the NME and Melody Maker. John Peel,the influential BBC DJ , became a cheerleader too.
They only put out one full-length album, A Fierce Pancake in 1988.
It is considered a classic, though, and an influence on later Cork bands such as the Sultans of Ping and the Frank and Walters.
Lynch would return to Cork where he founded the Dowtcha Puppets Theatre and fronted Don of Chickens. He developed cancer and passed away in 2015 at at the age of 56.
Kaught At The Kampus became the first release on Butler’s Reekus Records label. She would go on to put out music by The Blades, Saville, Cry Before Dawn and The Moondogs. The label will mark its 40th anniversary in 2021.
Elvera Butler continues to run Reekus Records, which is to release a 40th anniversary compilation next year.
Cathal Coughlan and Sean O’Hagan would briefly reform Microdisney in 2018, and played their 'last ever gig' with the band at Cyprus Avenue in Cork in February 2019.
Urban Blitz frontman Ber Murphy is an environmental landscape photographer in New York.
Mean Features’ Liam Heffernan and Nun Attax’s Ricky Dineen have a new band, Big Boy Foolish.
Their debut single, Horsey, was released in June.
Heffernan also became an actor, portraying Blackie Connors in Glenroe from 1992 to 1999 and Luke Dillon in Fair City among other roles.