Thirty-two years ago, lightning struck Irish music three times in the space of a few months. It was 1991 – the year of Nirvana and grunge. But also of three singular records from Ireland. U2’s Achtung Baby. Loveless by My Bloody Valentine. And I Am The Greatest by A House.
“I Am The Greatest is compared a lot to Loveless and Achtung Baby. All three albums came out in 1991, which is really weird,” says A House frontman Dave Couse. “Those three albums are now in the top three of the greatest Irish albums. They’re always talked about as a collective phenomenon.”
I Am The Greatest was made by a band fighting for survival. In the post-U2 stampede to sign Irish artists, A House had been snapped up by Warner Music, via its “indie” imprint, Blanco y Negro. But their first two albums had flopped and Warner had declined to renew their contract.
It was the point at which many would have thrown in the towel. Not A House. Working with Edwyn Collins, of iconic Glasgow indie group Orange Juice, they re-grouped and made a masterpiece. The project even coughed up a quasi-hit in the majestic drone-pop of Endless Art.
Yet in addition to being a stellar record, I Am The Greatest is a celebration of not giving up. It is bloody-minded, defiant and glorious. Or, to quote the LP’s title track, “One thing I know I am and will always be: I am the greatest”.
“I Am the Greatest remains one of the most extraordinary artistic achievements of a band with their backs to the wall,” says music documentary maker Paul McDermott. “They lost their record deal and retreated, but unbowed and unbroken returned.”
Dave Couse was born in Perrystown in suburban south Dublin and attended Templeogue College. He played in the band Last Chance before forming A House with guitarist Fergal Bunbury and several other school-mates.
Dublin music had entered a post-U2 lull. The famed – often ridiculed – scene centred around the Baggot Inn was a fading memory. A House were part of a new wave of groups, also including The Stars of Heaven and Something Happens, who came to be associated with the Underground Bar on Dame Street.
“We were part of the next wave, if you like, of Irish bands,” recalls Couse. “There were loads of us. The Underground Wave? We were part of that.”
A House came to the attention of influential British DJ John Peel, for whom they recorded a radio session. This led to a record deal with Blanco y Negro, a subsidiary of Warner Records. Single 'Call Me Blue' had radio success in Ireland, though the album On Our Big Fat Merry-Go-Round failed to break through to the extent for which Warner had hoped.
“They lost interest by the end of the first album,” says Couse. “It wasn’t the hit they thought it would be. Call Me Blue wasn’t a hit. I’ll Always Be Grateful [another single from the record] wasn’t. They thought we were going to take off to a much bigger level. It didn’t go well for us in America either at the time. We toured with The Go-Betweens on that album.
"But we were contractually obligated to record a second album. We had them over a barrel. They were obliged to pay for the recording and release it. We were very fortunate. We got to make it with Mike Hedges [producer of Siouxsie and the Banshees and, later, Manic Street Preachers]. We went to Inishbofin and made [their second LP] I Want Too Much."
I Want Too Much was released in 1990. Alas, it was another flop and so the Dubliners were dropped. But A House weren’t prepared to give up. In fact, they had a plan as to what to do next.
Couse and Bunbury had approached Edwyn Collins after he had played a solo gig in Dublin. They wanted him to produce A House – a surprise to Collins, who had never produced anyone.
He was, however, intrigued by A House and Couse’s raw yet melodic songwriting. Another fan was Keith Cullen, a London-based Dubliner who had just started DIY label, Setanta.
“We were dropped by Warners. We had no record deal. Keith Cullen was a big fan of I Want Too Much, which got very little attention,” says Couse. “We had made the album we wanted to. We felt our debut album was underwhelming.”
The big flaw with On Our Big Fat Merry-Go-Round was that it lacked consistency.
“It wasn’t as good as it could have been. Too many different styles. It was made over a three or four years period. As a band, we changed a lot over those four years. I Want Too Much impressed Keith. Being true to yourself always leads you somewhere else. If we had tried to please the record company and come back with more Call Me Blue, or whatever they were looking for, we would have flopped. They would have dropped us. We would have had no self-respect. We would have broken up. And that would be the end of us. Then Keith came into the picture. We said, we need to take it to the next level – we need to grow as a band’.”
Paul McDermott recalls: “I bought the Doodle EP in 1990 – A House’s first release for Setanta. At the time this record really put Setanta Records on the map. Doodle was the sixth single the label released and the first from a 'big' band: Beethoven, Into Paradise, Power of Dreams and Rare were all new bands when they put records out on Setanta. A House were an established band who had two albums out on a major.
"I remember being really impressed that Setanta released Doodle and in turn A House working with Setanta gave the label huge credibility. Doodle really set up I Am the Greatest and two of its four songs – ‘The Last to Know' and 'A Minute of Your Time' - could happily have made the cut for the album that followed.”
To fund the record, Cullen borrowed £10,000 from his parents. Couse and Bunbury were meanwhile doing their best to persuade Collins to produce.
“We brought in Edwyn Collins and extended the band [addding Susan Kavanagh as a vocalist]. Edwyn had played the Baggot Inn one time. We went up and asked him to produce us. He said, ‘yes’. We did a couple of demos. We did Our Love Is Good Enough in London. We loved what he did with the songs. His fee was in the 10 grand as well.”
I Am The Greatest contained some of Couse’s starkest songs. “Why do you treat me so cruel.” he sang on its opener, Take It Easy On Me. Elsewhere, he raged against a cold and indifferent world (I Don’t Care) and laid out all his vulnerabilities one by one (“I am afraid to be forsaken/I am afraid of doing wrong,” he sang on I Am Afraid).
“I was only 26,” he says. “I suppose I saw life for what it is. We didn’t get to look at it for long though rose-tinted glasses. We’d had a chequered career up to that point. A lot of disappointment. A lot of failure. To this day I still ponder why A House aren’t up there. I’m not expecting to be up at the very top. But certainly above where we are now.”
The merry-go-round spins on I Am The Greatest was immediately acclaimed. “A gigantic musical achievement and an astonishing comeback,” said Melody Maker. “More cohesive and infinitely more glorious than anyone could have hoped,” agreed Hot Press.
Much of the focus was on Endless Art, a droning spoken word piece that drew on the distortion-heavy 'shoe gaze’ sound in vogue at the time. It received heavy airplay on BBC Radio 1 in the UK. The expectation was that it would be a hit. There was only one issue: Setanta lacked the resources to press enough copies for the single to chart.
“It did hold us back, there’s no doubt about that,” says Couse. “No one could be blamed. Keith put his life on the line. He borrowed money. You can’t fault the man for wanting to try. I suppose there was a lack of experience – a more 'formed' record company would have seen Endless Art had potential to break through in a big way. When we released it it went bananas. We didn’t have any records to sell. We couldn’t chart. It was the most played record on BBC Radio 1 for a two-week period. We got single of the week in all the inkies [Melody Maker and the NME] as well. 'Endless Art' was a very big thing. We could have charted but we had no records. Was that Setanta’s fault? Of course. But it’s not a 'fault’. No one expected it. We were immature and inexperienced.”
A House released a further two albums, Wide-Eyed and Ignorant in 1994, and No More Apologies in 1996. They called it a day shortly after the latter with Couse going on to put out three solo LPs. But time had moved on and he struggled to find an audience. The failure, in particular, of Alonewalk in 2010 devastated him (the project featured a heart-rending duet with Cathal Coughlan of Microdisney and Fatima Mansions).
“It’s so depressing making records when you can’t sell them. Or even get anyone to listen. I made Alonewalk, it nearly killed me. I thought it was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I was so pleased. I thought it was going to take over. It got nothing. Zero attention. I was really hurt by that. I thought I’m never doing that again. And I haven’t.”
But the story wasn’t over. A House played two comeback gigs in 2019, including a sell-out at Vicar Street. Plans for a new A House LP were disrupted by the pandemic. But Couse and Bunbury hope to come back together later this year to perform I Want Too Much in its entirety in Whelan’s in Dublin.
“I Am The Greatest is the one people refer to as our greatest,” says Couse. “There are others who will come in with I Want Too Much. Ferg’s favourite is No More Apologies. And mine. Whether band members count I don’t know. Neither of us would have I Am The Greatest down as our best. But it’s great album, of course.”
- Dave Couse still lives in Dublin and took up writing poetry during the pandemic.
- Fergal Bunbury records as FBU62 and put out a new EP, Out of Tempo, in July 2021