SINGER PAUL CLEARY doesn’t have butterflies — yet. But he will. “I’m not a confident performer,” say Cleary, frontman of iconic Dublin post-punk trio, The Blades. “The 20 minutes before I go on are particularly nerve-wracking. You can’t function properly. You are sitting in the dressing room, not talking. You just want to get out there, on stage.”
This weekend, The Blades will play their first gigs in decades. With both of their Olympia Theatre shows due to sell-out, Cleary (54) says he is astonished at the group’s longevity. When The Blades disbanded, in the mid ’80s, having conspicuously failed to conquer the world, Cleary believed a chapter in his life had closed forever.
“It is very hard for me to be objective about our place in the scheme of things,” he says. “I know we were good — if that doesn’t sound stupid. Then, there were lots of good musicians from that period — and plenty more since — who have been forgotten. It amazes me people still care.”
When it was suggested that The Blades should headline The Olympia, Cleary was dubious. Would anyone come? When the promoter suggested a second date, Cleary scoffed outright.
“I felt that, with a big push, we might, might, do one night. I thought people would forget about us. I’m not being falsely modest when I say I am genuinely surprised the interest is still there. I didn’t think it would be,” he says. Melodic and anthemic, in the late ’70s The Blades were regarded as one of the Dublin bands most likely to break big abroad. Their only serious rivals were another up-and-coming outfit, with whom they had a love/hate relationship.
“There is a fascination among music journalists about us and U2,” says Cleary, sighing. “I understand that. You had these two young groups, both expected by the critics to do well. One goes on to become the biggest band in the world, the other doesn’t do anything at all.
“I don’t think there is anything comparable. If you take The Beatles, they didn’t have a rival, local act who were also tipped to make it. It was a unique situation, in many ways.”
U2 and The Blades got to know each other when they shared the bill at The Baggot Inn, for six consecutive weekends, in 1979. Later, with U2’s career taking off, Cleary became disillusioned and made some unkind remarks about Bono and company, which he now regrets.
“Their music didn’t excite me. However, they were certainly very good and very professional,” he says. “There was a little rivalry, though the extent of it was overstated. I did take a few pot-shots at them. I was almost panicking, because they were getting so far away from us and from everyone else. They never did anything wrong by The Blades. I have met U2 at various awards ceremonies, and while we wouldn’t be bosom pals, they are very polite. I think that is their policy — they are diplomatic people, very civil. I’ve spoken to them on a one-to-one basis and they are nothing like their stage personas.”
Like many Dublin punk groups, The Blades came together in rather chaotic circumstances. Their first gig was in 1977, at the Catholic Young Men’s Society hall in Ringsend, Dublin, from which they were ejected for playing ‘God Save The Queen’. The organisers of the event had no objection to the Sex Pistols — they thought The Blades were performing the British national anthem. Eighteen months later, with the line-up slimmed down to Cleary, his brother, Larry, on bass, and Pat Larkin, on drums, they put out their debut single, ‘Hot For You,’ and performed on The Late Late Show. A series of classic seven-inches followed: ‘Ghost of a Chance,’ ‘The Bride Wore White,’ ‘Downmarket’. It seemed a foregone conclusion that they would break big internationally.
However, things didn’t pan out. The group fell apart in 1985, after the release of their classic LP, The Last Man In Europe. Always ones to push against the status quo, their final gesture was to decline to appear at that year’s Self Aid charity concert, at the RDS, dismissing it as a glorified back-slap fest. Instead, they headlined a socialist gig across town, at Liberty Hall.
Cleary subsequently formed The Partisans and released a well-regarded solo long-player, Crooked Town, in 2001. However, his interests took him further and further away from rock’n’roll.
“I got a job writing quiz questions for a show called Blackboard Jungle,” he says. “It was very simple — I would co-write the questions, which helped pay the rent. I also had a pub band, The Cajun Kings. I enjoyed that — it was great fun, with no real responsibilities. You could have a few pints, enjoy yourself.”
Talk of a Blades reunion began after Cleary performed several of the group’s songs at August’s Philip Chevron testimonial concert. His short set was received in respectful awe. Straight afterwards, the phone started to ring: was he prepared to put the band back together? “A few years ago, if you asked me about nerves, I would be too cool for school and say I didn’t have any. I can tell you, for a fact, that I will be nervous on Friday. That sort of energy can work in your favour, if you channel it properly. But I’m certainly feeling it. We have rehearsals tonight and I’m even nervous thinking about that. The Blades legacy is such that I don’t want to disappoint people,” he says.
* The Blades play The Olympia, Dublin, on Friday and Saturday.
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