They were in the right place, but it must have been the wrong time, to borrow from Dr John.
Cork band Princes Street were an anachronism: a long-haired bunch of freedom-loving, Grateful Dead listening musicians whose loose, blues and rock based live gigs borrowed from the style of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue a decade earlier.
But from the late Eighties through to the early Nineties, Cork was ending its love affair with Pop, Punk and New Wave and an exciting new cultural shift was underway: rave had arrived.
“Yeah, we weren’t Eighties pop, and we really didn’t care as a group,” Princes Street lead singer and guitarist Hank Wedel says with a shrug. “We knew how we wanted to sound, and we weren’t going for pop fame. Live, it could be very, very wild and very much in the moment, and we attracted a lot of what remained of hippiedom, if you like. We were doing our own thing.”
The formation of the band is a very Cork story indeed: the corner of Princes Street and Oliver Plunkett Street is a lucrative and hotly contested busking pitch in Cork city. In 1984, while he was completing his arts degree in UCC, Mallow-American man Wedel opted to join forces with two other buskers who also coveted the Princes Street pitch. They were guitarist Mick Geraghty and percussionist Brian Carroll.
“It was Patrick’s Day,” Wedel recalls. “We busked, and we made £60, which was a fortune.”
It would be several years before Princes Street would cement itself into a more or less regular line-up; Wedel was New York bound after college, while Geraghty and Carroll had plans to decamp to Greece.
But by ’88, Wedel and Geraghty had reunited in Cork and were joined by Art Lorigan on drums – Carroll was still in Greece – Martin Moylett on bass and Edel Sullivan, who was still in school, on fiddle.
“We were a rock‘n’roll band, but Mick and Martin were serious blues men and Edel was a student of classical violin,” Wedel says. “We incorporated a lot of that into our shows whenever we could. The poet Diarmuid Ó Dálaigh used to get up and do his thing with us, and we used to back him up.”
The Lobby Bar on Union Quay opened in ’88 too. Cork music mogul Pat Conway, the Lobby’s owner, was looking for a house band and opted for Princes Street. He became their manager, and their practice room was above the Lobby, meaning they were fixtures in the venue.
The band, funded by Conway, also made their first recording in ’88, a six-track EP, which was released in ’89, with the unlikely title of. It was recorded in Sulán studios in Ballyvourney.
The EP’s quirky name had its origins in Princes Street’s open approach to their live gigs: other musicians, poets and eccentric characters would frequently spontaneously join the band onstage, and John Lynch was one such character.
“John was pretty upset with us not to be invited to come down and record in Ballyvourney,” Wedel says. “We played a gig the night before we started, and John was there, and by the end of the night, he’d lost his glasses. I said to him, ‘John, can you see anything?’ and he said, ‘the only thing I can see is your big fat face, Hank.’
“At the end of our time recording, I looked in one of the gear bags, and what was in the bag, but John Lynch’s glasses. So we had to call the record that. John loved it, and John’s family loved it too.”
The A-side songs oninclude Wedel’s soulful 'The Green and the Grey', penned for his little sister in New York, and Geraghty’s 'Sitting In A Bar', which Wedel says is one of the songs he’s performed the most down through the years, both with Princes Street and with his subsequent band, Open Kitchen.
Why has the song been so enduringly popular? “A lot of people find themselves sitting in bars,” Wedel says with a smile. “It’s three chords, it’s country rock ‘n’ roll. I think it’s a memorable chorus: ‘Sitting in a bar, crashed my car, my wife she left me again.’ It’s slightly sending up the whole country thing of my wife’s left me, my dog’s died.”
The minor key ballad 'Speak To Me', co-written by Wedel and Dónal Desmond, is enlivened by harmonies from session singer Carol Barrett, who also sang the song live with the band at times. Although it may sound initially like a yearning love song, Wedel says his own inspiration for penning the song was his interest in “the enigma that was Brian Jones” of the Rolling Stones.
The Night John Lynch Lost His Glasses was released on cassette, and Princes Street enjoyed a certain degree of recognition: live, they played at two Lark By The Lee festivals. They made television appearances, on Alf McCarthy’s Down Here With a View To Above and on Shay Healy’s Nighthawks.
Princes Street recorded a follow-up single, 'Song For You', produced by Declan Sinnott. But by 1990, a disastrous UK tour, and the loss of Pat Conway as their manager, put paid to Princes Street.
“We launched Song For You in May, but by the end of June we had broken up,” Wedel says. “There was a lot going on and we were very young. Every gig was like an event, a celebration. Which was probably why it burned out so fast. But there was also this feeling of trying to keep it together in the face of what the music business was, and we were pretty much on our own.”
After the dissolution of Princes Street, Wedel went on to form Open Kitchen, becoming a fixture of the music scene in small venues all over the country. Princes Street reunited for a gig to celebrate 30 years since the recording ofin 2018.
“Princes Street have gotten together for one-off gigs at various points down through the years and we play together as the Medication Blues Band,” Wedel says. “It broke up because it’s a hard business to keep going in. But we’re all still alive, so it could happen again at any time, if the stars align.”
All these years later, Pat Conway still believes it was a question of right place, wrong time for Princes Street.
“At the time, the rave scene was the big thing and I don’t think they got the recognition they deserved,” Conway says. “They were referred to by the ‘cool’ music journalists as a raggle-taggle bunch, but so were The Hothouse Flowers and The Waterboys. I think if they were around now, they would make more inroads.”
Analogue recording was an expensive process; Sulán studios charged £50 per hour, Conway recalls: “To record at that time was a much bigger undertaking than it is now. I can’t remember how much I paid overall.
“To be honest, what I really remember is being up and down on that road to Ballyvourney, either collecting someone or delivering someone, or to make sure they weren’t wasting time,” he says drily.
Princes Street may not have been trendy at the time, but there are examples of timeless song-writing on The Night John Lynch Lost His Glasses that Conway says are still worth a listen today.
“Speak To Me stands out for me,” he says. “It always went down very well live and I think it’s just a great song.”