On a crisp day in the summer of 1992, three Cork men piled into a boat and began rowing across a lake in Salzburg. “We were making the video for 'This Is Not A Song'. There was supposed to be a Sound Of Music theme,” recalls Frank and Walters’ drummer Ashley Keating.
“When you were making a video back then you’d put it out to various companies and they’d come in with a pitch. It [Austria and the rowing] wasn’t the greatest idea. There were much better ideas. But it was a trip to Salzburg.”
'This Is Not A Song' might not have floated the boat of Julie Andrews fans. However, upon its release that September, it was named single of the week in influential British rock weeklies NME and Melody Maker.
“The way it worked back then is that if you were an NME band then the Melody Maker didn’t like you. And vice-versa. They rarely got behind the same band,” says Keating. “Our first three singles were singles of the week in both.”
A winning run of seven inches that sharpened appetites for the Franks’ debut album. And the three-piece of Keating, singer/ bassist Paul Linehan and his brother guitarist Niall on guitar, didn’t disappoint when Trains, Boats and Planes was released in October 1992.
“I listened back to it recently and the naivety struck me,” says Keating. “Sometimes naivety is good. It was just so upbeat and positive.”
“We didn’t know who to make an album when we were doing it,” he continues. “I see Trains, Boats and Planes as a collection of songs, which was us attempting to make our first album.”
“It’s a debut album with phenomenal songs,” says Eddie Kiely, who runs the Frank and Walters' record label, Fifa Records. “Every song has optimism at the core. Everything about the Frank and Walters and that album is just optimism.”
Here, then, is the story of how a classic of Cork pop came to be.
Paul and Niall Linehan were born on the northside of Cork but moved to Bishopstown, a sprawling modern suburb on the southside, in the 1970s. The Linehan’s new home was at Glencairn Park, close to Cork Institute of Technology (then the Regional Tech), where future drummer Keating was a neighbour.
All three attended Bishopstown Community School. There, Paul was soon playing in bands (one pal with whom he jammed improvised a tea-chest bass using a broomstick and a tea-chest with twine).
The future Frank and Walters first played together as Sun Factory, with budding media personality Brendan O’Connor also a member. Paul later joined Judith Sunrise and briefly local punk stalwarts The 3355409s, which featured future Sultans of Ping member Morty McCarthy on drums.
But he didn’t like the vibe around The 3355409s and exited after just one session. He soon regrouped with Niall and Ashley and on October 14, 1989, The Frank and Walters played their first gig at De Barra’s in Clonakilty.
One of the first to spot their potential was local music journalist Colm O’Callaghan (today an RTÉ producer). He put them in touch with Keith Cullen, a Dun Laoghaire native running Setanta Records out of Camberwell in London.
With Cullen on board as manager, they signed with Go! Discs, a UK indie with financial backing from Polygram. Go! Discs founder Andy MacDonald saw the Franks as potentially another Housemartins, one of the label’s early successes.
“We reminded him of the Housemartins in some ways – an act from a regional town,” says Keating.
“They were from Hull, we were from Cork. The indecipherable accents. We were unlike the acts around London. We were dressed in large polo necks and had purple flares. We were different from all the other bands, who dressed to be cool.”
Cullen suggested the Franks move to London, where the music press had taken a shine to their optimistic alternative pop. A debut EP was released in 1991, containing future classics Walter’s Trip and Michael, alongside the more shoe-gazy Franks’ Right and Never Ending Staircase.
Even at this early stage, the group presented a singular vision. The EP’s cover painting, by Cork artist Donncha Wilkie, for instance, communicated Franks’ unique world view. This could be whimsical, even zany yet always with an undertow of sincerity and a tinge of melancholy. “They have a formula they haven’t strayed from right through their career – for writing catchy, uplifting pop,” says Eddie Kiely, who at the time was managing Emperor of Ice Cream, one of the indie groups from Cork that came to prominence in the aftermath of the Franks.
“I’ve been playing in bands since I was 15 or 16,” he continues. “The bands we looked up to were Cypress Mine and Burning Embers, who were big locally. The Frank and Walters were making the charts in the UK. They were playing pubs like the Phoenix and suddenly they were touring the UK and getting record deals. It gave the rest of us huge belief.”
British rock hacks sensed somewhat was afoot in Cork too. They lumped together the Franks and more punk-oriented Sultans of Ping and christened the scene 'Corkchester'.
Honorary members included The Fatima Mansions, led by Glounthane-born Cathal Coughlan, and Emperor of Ice Cream, whose sound was more in the shimmering indie milieu of The Charlatans.
But of course both the Franks and the Sultans were in London at that point anyway. There was a music scene in Cork. But it was quite small. There weren’t a lot of bands. It was handy for a few bands like the Emperors.
“They were a great band. But they possibly got noticed a bit quicker. I remember at one point reading an article in a magazine that mentioned a few Cork bands. I honestly believed they made up some of them. I had never heard some of the names. And if you were from Cork you know everyone. If you hung around in Comet Records or the Liberty Bar, you knew every band in Cork.”
Still, the attention the Franks and the Sultans were receiving undoubtedly added to the sense that something special was happening in Cork. Sir Henry’s was the epicentre of clubbing in Ireland. Cork had won the hurling and football double in 1990. Cork City would win the league in 1993. Roy Keane was becoming famous. Corcadorca was blazing a trail for Irish theatre. Everywhere you looked, the city was powering ahead, casting off the despair and the crippling gloom of the 1980s. “The city was buzzing at the time,” says Eddie Kiely. “There was a huge sense of fraternity. Even things like Cork City drawing with Bayern Munich in Musgrave Park. There was a huge belief around the place.”
“We didn’t know how to make an album when we were making Trains, Boats and Planes,” says Keating. “The process of doing that record showed us how to make the record.”
“The good thing about Setanta was that they let us get on with things,” adds Paul Linehan. “They gave us free rein.”
Trains, Boats and Planes was produced by Edwyn Collins, previously of iconic Scottish indie band Orange Juice. He was sort of an unofficial in-house producer at Setanta, having also worked with A-House (whose singer Dave Couse had in turn produced some of the Franks’ early releases).
The sessions took place in several studios across London, including Eden Studios in Chiswick, where Sinead O’Connor recorded Nothing Compares 2 U, and Elephant Studios in Wapping, where the Pogues made Rum, Sodomy & the Lash.
There was also a trip to Liverpool to work with the Lightning Seeds Ian Broudie at Amazon Studios on Parr Street, a stomping ground for Echo and the Bunnymen and The Smiths (who recorded Meat is Murder at Amazon).
“We actually recorded two versions of 'After All',” says Keating. “One in London with Edwyn and one in Liverpool with Ian Broudie.”
The Collins take appeared on the initial Ireland-UK release of Trains, Boats and Plans. The poppier Broudie recording was swapped out when the LP received wider release beyond Ireland and Britain. It’s the best known rendering of the tune and the one you will hear today on streaming services.
“Edwyn was afraid of us becoming too polished,” says Keating. “The basics of the song are the same. Edwyn’s version is stripped back – a bit poignant. The Ian Broudie version is more bombastic, and in your face.” “I liked the songs a lot and thought they were very refreshing, actually, compared to almost everything else around at the time. Honest and unpretentious and decidedly happy in a good way.
Jock Loveband, who engineered the record, recalls: “I liked working with Edwyn because I felt he always had a good grip for getting the important things right – the shape and dynamic of the song and the performance. He would guide the band to do their best without altering the essence of what they were."
Loveband remembers the Franks as slightly wet behind the ears but keen to learn. “Edwyn did mention that they were inexperienced. My impression is that it was all fine though. They respected Edwyn and had a good attitude. I did like all that indie stuff. There seemed to be more room for it in those days. The most important thing for a new band was to come out with something good, fresh and different from all the rest. It didn’t need to be super polished, just authentic. I think that happened then more than it does now.”
Are there any weak tracks? Linehan winces slightly as he mentions 'Bake Us A Song', a slower number that Keith Cullen at Setanta pushed to be a single.
“He loved it,” says Linehan. “It would be my least favourite on the album. The string section at the end is quite good. Lyrically I’m not happy with it.”
The title of the album came from a model toy shop in Cork. This was part of a tradition of Cork acts referencing beloved hometown landmarks – see, also, the Sultans’ 1993 debut Casual Sex in the Cineplex and the Franks’ Grand Parade, from 1997. However, the name spoke to something deeper too.
“The shop was at the bottom of Oliver Plunkett Street,” says Linehan. “When you were a young fella you’d go in and look around. You’d go in and look at all the stuff you’d love to be able to afford: remote control airplanes and stuff like that. Somehow the name evoked the album: that nostalgia of when you were young and everything was magic and you felt safe and happy.”
Trains, Boats and Planes was critically acclaimed. And then, 'After All', written by Paul about an old girlfriend, became a hit in its own right, reaching 11 in the UK charts in January 1993. It led to the Franks creating history as the first Cork group on Top of the Pops.
At the BBC studios they got to hang out with Paul McCartney, whose dressing room was across from the Franks' (his single 'Hope of Deliverance' was at number 30, nearly 20 places below the Franks). Linda McCartney was there, too, and a lively conversation about the merits of a meat-free diet ensued.
“I remember Linda trying to convert us to vegetarianism,” Paul Linehan told the Irish Examiner in 2018. “She said: ‘do you know an animal died so that you can eat burgers?’”. We said: ‘do you know an animal died so you could wear those leather shoes?’”
'After All' would take on a life of its own. It has been introduced to a new generation via TV series The Young Offenders.
Alas, that high was followed by several years of lows. Struggling to write new songs, the trio moved home to Cork and largely disappeared from view. It took a while but they would eventually return with the record they regard as their masterpiece, 1997’s Grand Parade.
However Britpop had arrived in the intervening years: artists who had supported the Franks, such as Suede and Radiohead, were now lords of all they surveyed (as was a former Franks roadie named Noel Gallagher who would later praise the group’s early EPs as “great”).
“With our first album we were in the right place at the right time with the right type of music,” says Paul Linehan. “With the second one we weren’t. You have to have all the ingredients for it to be a success. But in my mind I’m more proud of Grand Parade than Trains, Boats and Planes.” Others might argue Trains, Boats and Planes captured the group at a special moment. The Frank and Walters, who have today slimmed to the core duo of Paul and Ashley, would release more thematically coherent records. Yet their debut was the sound of a band finding their voice and taking on the world on their own terms.
“There was a fresh-faced hope and genuine naivety,” says Keating. “And that made it sound fresh.”