One rainy afternoon in 1991, Gene Russell eased into the driver’s seat of his Volkswagen Beetle and retrieved from the glove compartment a battered cassette demo. Also in the car was a Dutch man he’d met just a few hours previously. Russell popped the tape into the stereo. From out of the speakers blasted a riotous mix of reggae and rock. As the wind lightly buffeted the vehicle and the downpour continued, the two strangers bopped along to the music.
“I was down in Kinsale having a singsong,” recalls the former bassist with Cork reggae-punks The Belsonic Sound. “We met these Dutch guys and got talking. It just happened that one of them was a radio producer from the Hague. And our band had just recorded a 12 inch single. He asked me to play it for him – so I put it on in my car. He said that when it came out we should send it to him.”
Russell could not have known it at the time but that random meeting in Kinsale marked the beginning of an unlikely alliance. One that would lead The Belsonic Sound to record their only official studio album with the backing of a Dutch label. And which would win the Corkonians a fanbase in the Low Countries and see them share a bill with Radiohead and The Manic Street Preachers at the Pinkpop festival in the Netherlands.
Released over a decade into their history, 1993’s Trouble would become a curious swan song for The Belsonic Sound, who blended the energy of ska, the ferocity of punk and the underdog irascibility that through the 1980s had emerged as a hallmark of the Cork indie scene.
Never officially released in Ireland, it arrived too late to add to the momentum they had built in their hometown. But it is a worthy memento from an outfit which petered out shortly afterwards. Here is the story of how it came to be.
The Belsonic Sound began in the early 1980s, emerging fully formed from another band, Belson, founded by 15-year-old Finny Corcoran.
“It had started as a punk four-piece playing support and small gigs in the Arcadia for Elvera Butler,” recalls Jim O’Mahony, keyboardist with the group 1982 to 1988.
“Belson” was obviously a controversial moniker, referring as it did to Belsen concentration camp. Their name was actually misspelled “Belsen” in a newspaper advertisement for their first gig at Elvera Butler’s Downtown Kampus night at the Arcadia ballroom on the Lower Glanmire Road.
Regardless of the etymology, even in the nihilistic, pre-Twitter early 1980s calling yourself after a Nazi death camp was problematic “It wouldn’t have been my choice,” says O’Mahony. “It wasn’t a great name.”
Nazi iconography was obviously hugely taboo. It was also a cheap way for the punk generation to scandalise their elders. Sid Vicious of The Sex Pistols would pose in a Swastika t-shirt. Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie and the Banshees went on stage wearing a swastika armband. Joy Division took their name from the sex slavery “wing” of a concentration camp. It was almost a trend.
“You had a lot of that stuff happening around then,” says O’Mahony. “What we quickly discovered is that if we did a demo we couldn’t get airplay. If you were in a band you had to get your demo played by Dave Fanning on 2FM. We were told in no uncertain terms we were never going to get anything played if we had that name. We found it hard to get gigs, too.”
Accepting the inevitable and bowing to good taste, Belson became The Belsonic Sound. Cork’s reggae scene was huge at the time and the quartet began to incorporate elements of the genre into their music and move away from the unexpurgated anger of punk. And they settled on the core lineup of Finny Corcoran on guitar, Gene Russell on bass, Jim O’Mahony on keyboards and Con O’Donovan on drums (replaced in 1983 by John MacCormack).
“Our first proper gig with the new line-up was in the old Bodega across from De Lacy House [on Oliver Plunkett Street],” recalls O’Mahony. “It was a very, very dodgy pub. You had to walk through the front bar, which was basically full of prostitutes. It was like walking into a Tom Waits album. The venue was at the back. At our first gig we got 20 people. And we developed from there."
Cork in the 1980s was on its knees, with industries such as Ford and Dunlop shuttering, along with the Verolme shipyards near Cobh. That sense of despair and ennui fuelled the local music scene. Punks around the world had lots to lash out against. But that was never true than in Cork, a city abandoned and seemingly metastasising into its own rustbelt in miniature.
“We started getting bigger and bigger crowds,” says O'Mahony. “We moved to the Underground in a lane at the top of Patrick Street. It was on a street that doesn’t exist anymore. They built Merchant's Quay Shopping Centre there.” RECORDING
O’Mahony left in 1988 to focus on music retail (he would eventually open Comet Records on Washington Street). He had long since departed by the time Gene Russell struck up a friendship with the Dutch radio producers who would put the band in contact with Amsterdam-based Van Recordings.
With financial backing from the label, they recorded at Sulán Studios, the Ballyvourney facility set up by U2 soundman (and fellow Arcadia veteran) Joe O’Herlihy. In the producer’s chair was 25-year-old George Shilling, a wunderkind whose credits included Yazz’s The Only Way Is Up and the Soup Dragon’s reggae-indie crossover hit, I’m Free.
Next the band had to mix the record. For this, they relocated to Tears For Fears’ studio at Wool Hall near Bath, where The Smiths and Van Morrison had worked extensively.
“It was in a village in the middle of nowhere,” says Russell. “There were two tiny pubs. You’d walk into one and it was like being in an episode of Emmerdale Farm.”
Trouble was positively received in the Netherlands. Buoyed by the reception The Belsonic Sound went on to play iconic Amsterdam venues The Paradiso and Melkweg. And they were top of the bill at 60,000 capacity Pinkpop festival, just behind Manic Street Preachers and Radiohead.
A second LP was planned, with the band recording demos. However the label expressed misgivings over a shift to a more guitar-oriented sound. They wanted the group to stay closer to their reggae and dance influences. There were other problems, too.
“Ian Broudie of The Lighting Seeds was supposed to produce,” says Russell. “Then he had a big hit [Change] and had to go off on tour. He called us up to say he couldn’t do it. After that there was a bit of thing between the label and the publishers. Then, the drummer left and it all fell apart. I still have the demos for that second album. It’s stunningly good. There’s a couple of songs on it which, if you played them now, sound even better than they did then.”
It's just one more of the 'what ifs' in the tale of one of Cork's finest bands of their era.