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Class of U2: Irish punks and the Velvet Curtain

Samuel Breen
Operating Theatre   press shot 1 300x191 Class of U2: Irish punks and the Velvet Curtain

Operating Theatre

You could be forgiven for thinking that U2 is the only band in Ireland with the gumption to challenge social norms without the assistance of cable-knits. Thankfully Dublin-based DJ and music fanatic Darren McCreesh has put together Strange Passion, a compilation of Irish post punk acts to educate us all.

“I already had a particular interest in esoteric electronic music and post punk from UK, US, and beyond but knew very little about underground music from Ireland pre 1990. So I began to investigate and, with my focus very much on the post punk scene, was introduced to bands like Operating Theatre, The Threat and Chant! Chant! Chant! I was utterly blown away and couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Beautifully diverse, dissonant and utterly obscure this was the scene that time forgot.”

The compilation is diverse in terms of subject matter: from gothic to political, debased rock to ambient synth. One element that is unique (to my ears at least) for music of this ilk, is the prominence of religion. “No Water” by Peridots, for example, is a macabre portrayal of self-harm, incorporating morality; “Fire From Above”, by SM Corporation, contains ideas of divine judgement.

“I am just about old enough to remember Ireland at that time. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Ireland up until the 1980s was living in a velvet version of the Iron Curtain. Just replace Communist dictatorships with what was effectively a church led state. It isn’t really any wonder that religion and a concern with Divinity finds expression in a variety of forms amongst these bands. Incidentally Peter Hamilton of Peridots and Steve Averill of SM Corporation both grew up in Malahide with none other than the members of U2 – probably just a coincidence though.”

The notion of a Velvet Curtain in Ireland is one widely agreed on, but its effect on culture is rarely discussed. One of the finest examples of this analogy with Soviet Communism would be The Virgin Prunes, who were more progressive than their dystopian peers, straying into the musical radicalism of Soviet-era bands such as Popular Mechanics.

“The Virgin Prunes was the most overtly anti-establishment musical act to emerge at this time and they revelled in confrontational primal acts which by their nature were an affront to Catholicism. An infamous appearance on primetime chat show The Late Late Show, was a tightly coiled performance that bristled with rage and hollowed out despair which seemed to channel a seam of covert unease. Something that very few were prepared to do at that time and could be said to have anticipated later revelations of institutional abuse which continued through to the 1990’s.”

While, “Institutional abuse” recalls the corruption of middle management that riddled the tail end of Soviet Union, “Primal acts,” could be used to describe artists such as Sergey Kuryokhin who was recognised for his aggressively conceptual performances, involving props such as spittoons.

For these artists, such a window of wild experimentation was all too short lived. “Certainly bands didn’t seem to stay together for very long, but they were soon replaced by others,” argues Darren, “Pretty much all of them became more pop oriented as the 80s progressed. It seems that as musicians became more proficient with synthesisers the more melodic their work became.”
It’s easy to think of U2 as a voice of a generation – and to overindulge in them. With Strange Passions, we see how they existed at an optimistic, humanitarian tip of a culture. One that, albeit briefly, harboured a vibrant democracy of sound far more radical and interesting than the vanilla rock we oft associate with the era.

You could be forgiven for thinking that U2 is the only band in Ireland with the gumption to challenge social norms without the assistance of cable-knits. Thankfully Dublin-based DJ and music fanatic Darren McCreesh has put together a compilation of Irish post punk acts to educate us all.

“I already had a particular interest in esoteric electronic music and post punk from UK, US, and beyond but knew very little about underground music from Ireland pre 1990. So I began to investigate and, with my focus very much on the post punk scene, was introduced to bands like Operating Theatre, The Threat and Chant! Chant! Chant! I was utterly blown away and couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Beautifully diverse, dissonant and utterly obscure this was the scene that time forgot.”

The compilation is diverse in terms of subject matter: from gothic to political, debased rock to ambient synth. One element that is unique (to my ears at least) for music of this ilk, is the prominence of religion. “No Water” by Peridots, for example, is a macabre portrayal of self-harm, incorporating morality; “Fire From Above”, by SM Corporation, contains ideas of divine judgement.

“I am just about old enough to remember Ireland at that time. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Ireland up until the 1980s was living in a velvet version of the Iron Curtain. Just replace Communist dictatorships with what was effectively a church led state. It isn’t really any wonder that religion and a concern with Divinity finds expression in a variety of forms amongst these bands. Incidentally Peter Hamilton of Peridots and Steve Averill of SM Corporation both grew up in Malahide with none other than the members of U2 – probably just a coincidence though.”

The notion of a Velvet Curtain in Ireland is one widely agreed on, but its effect on culture is rarely discussed. One of the finest examples of this analogy with Soviet Communism would be The Virgin Prunes, who were more progressive than their dystopian peers, straying into the musical radicalism of Soviet-era bands such as Popular Mechanics.

“The Virgin Prunes was the most overtly anti-establishment musical act to emerge at this time and they revelled in confrontational primal acts which by their nature were an affront to Catholicism. An infamous appearance on primetime chat show The Late Late Show, was a tightly coiled performance that bristled with rage and hollowed out despair which seemed to channel a seam of covert unease. Something that very few were prepared to do at that time and could be said to have anticipated later revelations of institutional abuse which continued through to the 1990’s.”

While, “Institutional abuse” recalls the corruption of middle management that riddled the tail end of Soviet Union, “Primal acts,” could be used to describe artists such as Sergey Kuryokhin who was recognised for his aggressively conceptual performances, involving props such as spittoons.

For these artists, such a window of wild experimentation was all too short lived. “Certainly bands didn’t seem to stay together for very long, but they were soon replaced by others,” argues Darren, “Pretty much all of them became more pop oriented as the 80s progressed. It seems that as musicians became more proficient with synthesisers the more melodic their work became.”
It’s easy to think of U2 as a voice of a generation – and to overindulge in them.

With Strange Passions, we see how they existed at an optimistic, humanitarian tip of a culture. One that, albeit briefly, harboured a vibrant democracy of sound far more radical and interesting than the vanilla rock we oft associate with the era.

  • stonedwolf

    U2 aren’t the only Irish band but they’re the closest Ireland has to Coldpay.


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