His name was Pat O’Sullivan, and his dream was to one day hear his music on the radio. So when in late 1999 he learned that a new record label in Cork was seeking submissions, he put one of his songs on a disc, slipped it into an envelope and set down his details in spidery hand-writing.
'This Song Is U' is a heartbreaking ballad, Sinatra-esque in its melancholy. O’Sullivan was in his seventies; his voice brims with the wisdom and ennui that come with a life lived almost to the end of the line. The moment they heard it, the team behind the Southern Fried compilation were floored.
“We got about 116 demos,” recalled Joe Kelly, today a leading promoter in Cork, then an instigator of the Tuna record label. “There was some brilliant stuff, some awful stuff. And everything was ‘cool’. Then we got this one CD and it’s a crooner. If I was in Dublin and I was really cool, I’d be [adopts faux-American Dublin hipster accent] ‘Nooo way are we going to put this on’. But I was like, ‘That’s it – that’s the last tune!’.”
And so it came to pass that, after 13 sublime examples of the best Cork had to offer in funk, house, hip-hop and electronica, the February 2000 Southern Fried compilation finishes, heartbreakingly, with O’Sullivan and 'This Song Is U'. “Yesterday I heard a song….” he sings, accompanied by a Wee Small Hours wash of piano. “That reminded me of you, still the music lingers on today…”
“I called Pat,” says Kelly. “He didn’t know the CD was 'only' for cool urban youth. We just fell in love with the song. He was delighted to hear he’d made it. Two months later, I rang him back to tell him the launch date. His daughter answered the phone. She said, ‘We have a sad bit of news… my dad passed away’. But he knew he was on the CD and it was the first thing he ever had released.”
Southern Fried is dedicated to O’Sullivan’s memory. And then, six years later, Kelly’s Tuna records and Primetime, the iconic Cork clothing retailer, joined forces once again for a second compilation, with Southern Fried 2 released in December 2006. Here is the story behind these sublime landmarks in recent Cork sonic history.
Primetime, on Washington Street, was founded in September 1992 by Cobh, Co Cork native Louisa Heckett. It sold clothes and footwear but Heckett (who ran Primetime with her business partner Niall Hassett) was determined for it be more than just a store. Primetime would sponsor local graffiti artists and skateboarders – and soon became central to Leeside’s burgeoning alternative movement.
“There was a lot of energy around the dance scene at the time,” she says. “We were all very young. Comet Records and Primetime were on the same row. Joe Kelly was doing the Bodega. There was all this alternative music. Radio Friendly [iconic Nineties pirate station] was in our building. We decided it would be really interesting to showcase new and up-and-coming Cork bands.”
There was a sense of an emerging Cork scene – underground yet rooted in the city’s wider cultural fabric and its image of itself as a place apart from (and, let’s be honest, superior to) the rest of Ireland.
It was distinct, in particular, from Dublin, which just copied whatever had been happening in London six months previously. In the nexus of Sir Henry’s (the back bar venue especially), Comet, Primetime, Radio Friendly and the Bodega, a distinctive Southern “cool” was catalysed. Southern Fried, across volumes one and two, was an attempt to capture that.
The title “Southern Fried” was a nod to the Southern Soul and Disco Festival with which Kelly had been involved in the late Nineties. Tuna, meanwhile was a flag of convenience. “That was me and Philip O’Connell, the bass player in [Eighties post-punk band] Nun Attax.”
O’Connell by that point was running Frontline Promotions, which brought David Gray to Cork early on, and also ran a lot of gigs at Nancy Spain's.
“We were trying to build a scene,” agrees Heckett. “Build Cork as an independent cultural and artistic city, outside the umbrella of Dublin.”
With the new millennium approaching, Tuna and Primetime reached out to acts around the city. As Kelly says, they received over 100 submissions. Two things became immediately clear. One, several acts with whom they were friendly weren’t going to make the cut (“there were some ruffled feathers,” says Heckett). Secondly, the band demos generally weren’t recorded to a sufficient standard. And so Southern Fried was to be all-electronic, with the exception of Pat O’Sullivan’s poignant closer.
“You would have something very sharp made on computer up against a bad rock recording,” says Kelly. “We were like ‘that’s not going to work’.” The cover image was by Martin Finnan, who would go on to become a successful abstract painter, still based in Cork (some of his work hangs at the Opera House).
Another local artist would create the sleeve for the 2006 compilation. Conor Harrington had introduced himself to Primetime by walking in while still at school and offering to contribute artwork to the store front. Harrington would move to London, where Damien Hirst purchased four of his pieces. He then acquired the same agent as Banksy – and is now an arts world superstar, whose pieces fetch hundreds of thousands at auction.
Southern Fried volume one cost roughly €2000– €3000 to produce. It was mastered at Windmill Lane in Dublin, with 1000 CDs pressed. Among the featured artists were Bass Odyssey, a jungle-influenced affair that had emerged from the ashes of indie band Emperor of Ice Cream (who have just reformed) and The Mighty Quark, a vehicle for former busker Mark O’Sullivan, resident in Stockholm since 1994.
Cork’s rich house music tradition was represented by Fish Go Deep, the production moniker of influential Sir Henry’s Sweat DJs Greg Dowling and Shane Johnson, and its indie past by Citizen aka, a project from ex-Starchild/How and Why Insects founder Alan Murphy.
If anything, volume two in 2006 was even more eclectic. Overheads on this occasion were estimated at around €4,000 (again bankrolled by Primetime). It was mastered by Richard Dowling in Wav Mastering in Limerick, with 3000 copies distributed through Primetime.
Improvements in home-recording technology meant the non-techno submissions were up to scratch; hence the diverse range of artists, among them singer Michelle Brennan, indie band Exit Pursued By A Bear and agit-rockers Arm the Elderly, among them Brian Hassett, now of Coughlan's Live.
Southern Fried 2 also marked the recording debut of West Cork soul artist Brian Deady, with 'Cold Spot'. He has gone on to win acclaim for his single 'Clap Both My Hands', and albums including 2015’s Non-Fiction.
“I had just come back from Australia and really wanted to get involved in music,” says Deady. “I was working in a health food shop at the time and got a call from Joe Kelly saying he was blown away by the song. That just blew my mind. It was the first time I had got that level of approval off anyone.”
For Heckett, she's aware that Primetime's 30th anniversary is approaching, and feels it might be a good moment to start thinking about a Southern Fried part three. “Our logo when we started declared 'Here's to educating and encouraging alternative young minds',” she says. “It’s probably nearly time for another one, highlighting upcoming music and different genres.”
Bring it on.
Joe Kelly runs The Good Room promotions houses, which includes Live at St Luke's and the Kino venues, and is the founder of the It Takes A Village festival at Trabolgan in East Cork.
Louisa Heckett still runs Primetime with Niall Hassett.
Brian Deady released his latest album, Yellow Creek, this year. He recently completed an audio play. The Porch is “set in West Texas in 1993 about an ex Sheriff and a ghost who live in a house out in the desert and operate a local DIY radio station”.