In October 1990, U2 arrived at Berlin’s Hansa Studios to begin work on Achtung Baby. The Wall was down, Germany was newly reunified and U2 hoped to summon up some of the Hansa magic – Bowie and Iggy had recorded there in the '70s.
U2 weren’t the first Irish musicians to record in Hansa, though; four years earlier Stump recorded A Fierce Pancake in what was then known as “Hansa by the Wall”.
Hansa had a magnetic aura. It’s where, over the course of three albums, Depeche Mode transformed from synth-popsters to dark electronic giants.
As Stump arrived at Hansa another dark giant was vacating – Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds had just finished work on Tender Prey. Stump knew all about Hansa’s legacy.
“Hansa was an old cabaret concert hall from the time of the Weimar Republic,” recalls Corkman Rob McKahey, Stump’s drummer. “I remember going in and looking around thinking my god: Low and Heroes were recorded here; The Idiot and Lust For Life were done here. I felt really privileged to be playing drums there.”
Stump formed when McKahey immigrated to London and answered a Melody Maker “musician’s wanted” advert that was placed by two Englishmen: bassist Kev Hopper and guitarist Chris Salmon.
Over 20 singers were auditioned before McKahey remembered that fellow Downtown Kampus graduate Mick Lynch had also moved to London.
As soon as Lynch added words to the music it gelled, the Irish-English quartet was complete. “I thought, this is the one, and he was,” remembers Salmon. “What a front man, I can’t think of anybody as good as him in his prime.”
In August 1985 Stump played their first gig supporting Five Go Down to the Sea in a squat in London. From that inauspicious start their song ‘Buffalo’ became a highlight of C86, the legendary NME cassette, and Quirk Out, their self-released mini-album, spent eight weeks in the Top 5 of the UK Indie Charts.
A lot had happened for Stump between that first squat gig and arriving in Berlin.
Lynch died in 2015 but, speaking to me a few months before he passed, he said, “Stump was very eclectic: Rob was into traditional Irish music; I was into punk rock and world music; Chris was into '50s and '60s R&B; and Kev was really into electronic stuff – between us that’s how our sound came out.”
After Quirk Out’s success Stump signed to Nigel Grainge’s Ensign Records. “I loved ‘Buffalo’ and I went to see them,” Grainge recalls. “I thought they were just fabulous, I mean crazy, but fabulous and I didn’t even think twice about signing the legendary Stump.”
Newly signed, Stump started planning their album. Hopper, the creative driving force in the band, was keen to work with the experimental German musician Holger Hiller.
“I was a big fan of Hiller’s music, I liked the way he deconstructed everything, it was incredible,” he recalls. “He made really amazing records, the whole notion of sampling chunks of music and then rearranging them and having all these fantastic noises that were from another genre in it.”
Once a producer was agreed upon, the choice of studio seemed obvious. “Hansa was chosen because it had accommodation but as it had fallen out of fashion by 1987 it was therefore cheap to hire,” remembers Hopper.
If Hopper was excited to have Hiller as producer, for Ensign he was an unproven choice. Stephen Street, best known for his work with The Smiths, was regarded as a safe pair of hands so was hired to engineer the recordings.
“I was aware of Stump, I can remember C86 and their peers from that time and I liked their music,” recalls Street. “They were getting great press and seemed to have a momentum behind them.”
Street was also excited about the studio. “The opportunity to go to Berlin and record at Hansa Studios was very attractive to me,” he says. “It was exciting seeing those rooms in Hansa and of course I was very aware of the legacy of the studio and who had recorded in it.”
Tensions within the band surfaced quickly at Hansa. Stump had previously recorded live in the studio but Hiller was keen to deconstruct the process.
“Hiller was really into his electronics and his sampling,” recalls McKahey. “I wanted it to be a rock album – we were an avant-garde rock band. I ended up having to play along to a click track. Playing Stump drums to a click track was no mean feat.”
After a few weeks Street had to return to London. “Working with Morrissey at that time was a priority for me,” he recalls. “I was given the opportunity to co-write Viva Hate and continue a relationship that I had started during my time working with The Smiths so I left Berlin.”
The recordings were tidied up back in London by Hugh Jones, who had produced Quirk Out.
“After a lot of time and a lot of money, they still didn’t have anything completely finished and so they asked me if I could finish it off,” remembers Jones. “A Fierce Pancake, it was built in the studio and so it doesn’t really have that spontaneity that Quirk Out had.”
Sensing that ‘Charlton Heston’ – a song Stump had written at Hansa – might be a potential hit, Ensign hired John Robie, fresh from working with New Order, to produce it.
“If you end up using different producers and different recording sessions the momentum can definitely be lost and I think Stump lost the momentum that they had,” says Street. “Things changed very quickly in the UK music scene in the late 80s and suddenly the bands from Manchester were happening.”
A Fierce Pancake was released in March 1988. The iconic cover photograph of men carrying an upturned currach was by renowned photographer Fergus Bourke. His beautiful image is incongruous with the music within: a collection of dense, complicated and experimental riffs, rhythms and beats which used shifting time signatures twisting around Lynch’s surreal lyrical output.
The album was named after a line in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman and is dedicated to the works of O’Brien and Wilheim Reich, Grainge was right: crazy but fabulous.
Stump, always a great live band, spent much of 1988 on the road promoting the record, even touring with Sonic Youth and Hüsker Dü in Europe. ‘Chaos’, ‘Charlton Heston’ and a re-recorded ‘Buffalo’ were all released as singles. ‘Charlton Heston’, with its brilliant Tim Pope-directed video, stalled at No. 72 in the UK Charts.
The commercial breakthrough never came and by late 1988 a disheartened Stump split up.
A Fierce Pancake is an artistic triumph. On its release the NME described it as, “a quantum leap into the logical absurd, into sanity and hysteria and, as such, it’s the very best pop for the slightly discerning.”
A cult classic, the album’s reputation has grown over the years. Trevor Dunn, the American bassist with Mr Bungle and Mike Patton’s supergroup Tomahawk, recently declared his affection for the album when he told music site Velvet Sheep that, “there is pop drama infused into this out-to-lunch 'rock' music that any post-metal kid who was checking out, say, the Meat Puppets or Firehose would be drawn to.”
Nearly six years on from Lynch’s passing, Salmon remembers the singer with fondness.
“He was the best frontman I’ve ever seen, he was a true Irish wordsmith, and his lyrics are up there with the best.” Reflecting today Hopper believes that, “the album was a mighty achievement of disparate influences and untypical creativity.”
McKahey is circumspect, “A Fierce Pancake was a very ambitious project by four lads who were definitely punching above their weight. For me it’s difficult to be 100% positive about it, but I trust other people. If someone loves it then I think that’s great, that’s fantastic.”
- Mick Lynch was a founding member of Dowtcha Puppets, the children’s puppet theatre company. He performed his songs under the name Don For Chickens. He died in December 2015 after a short battle with cancer.
- Rob McKahey lives in Cobh and works as a music therapist. He still plays music, though these days it’s more likely to be folk tunes on guitar.
- Kev Hopper is a painter and musician who has released numerous solo albums, he plays with the bands Prescott and Ticklish.
- Chris Salmon is a painter and printmaker, exhibiting his work on a regular basis.
- Stephen Street is a record producer best known for his work with The Smiths, The Cranberries and Blur.
- Hugh Jones is a record producer best known for his work with Echo & the Bunnymen, The Sound and The Undertones.
- Nigel Grainge signed The Boomtown Rats, The Waterboys, Sinéad O’Connor and Into Paradise to Ensign Records - he died in June 2017.
- Paul McDermott’s documentary “Lights! Camel! Action! – the story of Stump” can be heard at paulmcdermott.ie