Wednesday 13 December 2017

How a Wexford band came within touching distance of the big time


SIGNED to a major label, Cry Before Dawn was an independent island in Ireland's music landscape of the late 1980s. Largely ignored in the early years by a Dublin-centric national media, and further isolated by a determination to base themselves in Wexford, the success of Brendan Wade, Tony Hall, Vinnie Doyle and Pat Hayes in the late eighties was regarded in some quarters as a bolt from the blue. Indeed, when the Evening Press realised a 'new' Irish band had somehow crept with little fuss into the UK charts, the now defunct paper's brief front page story smacked of wide-eyed surprise.

It was a different story back home in Wexford, and among Cry Before Dawn fans around the country. Songs such as 'White Strand', 'Girl In The Grotto', ' The Seed That's Been Sown' and 'Gone Forever' had won hearts and filled the house at venues in Waterford, Cork, Carlow and yes, even Dublin, for the best part of five years. But it was in Wexford, on sweaty nights in Pat Kehoe's Imperial Bar in Selskar, the County Hotel in Anne Street, and White's, that Cry Before Dawn sparkled, and it was to Wexford the record company scouts came in hungry packs, following the scent of something special wafting from Wexford via a live session on BBC radio. Some wanted to see the band in a 'proper' live setting, so local gigs were scheduled to coincide with the visits; others just wanted to see and hear them play a few songs.

And this is where the story did take a surreal turn. When a glamorous A&R scout from Geffen Records arrived in Wexford from LA via London, she brought along pal Anto Thistlethwaite, of the Waterboys. They auditioned the band while sitting on plastic chairs in a cold, deserted gym borrowed for the purpose from Dominic Kiernan, councillor, mayor, Cry Before Dawn fan and, famously, the person who introduced Des Bishop to Ireland.

By the time Cry Before Dawn flew to London to sign a contract with then record giants CBS/Epic, later Sony, they were seasoned live performers and prolific songwriters. They had already released their own single on their own Dawn Records label (the double A-sided 'Follow Me'/'Credit To The People', recorded at Mike Odlum's Cooleycall Studios in Bridgetown) and knew their way around RTE in Donnybrook, thanks to a steady stream of TV appearances. Some of these were on the invitation of fellow Wexford man Declan Lowney, a hot young director of music shows at the national station who would later etch his name into the annals of television comedy as director of Father Ted for Channel 4.

Over the next few years Cry Before Dawn did live the dream. First album 'Crimes of Conscience' yielded singles 'Gone Forever', ' The Seed That's Been Sown' and 'Girl In The Ghetto', renamed as the record company felt the word 'grotto' would not be understood by a UK audience. There was minor UK, and major Irish, chart success; enough to convince CBS to invest heavily in a second album, partly recorded in the US. More radio-friendly singles followed, most notably title track 'Witness For The World' which earned an appearance on the BBC's 'Wogan', then Britain's top primetime chat show.

Feted at the televised IRMA awards (predecessor of the Meteors), the Wexford band won first Best New Irish Band and then the ultimate accolade of Best Irish Band, rubbing shoulders with U2 and Paul McGuinness, a friend of their manager. They had the Gold Discs, the fan club, the high-profile fans (Pat Kenny, boxer Barry McGuigan, Joe Duffy) and the ticket touts, one of whom even tried to sell tickets to band members outside a packed-out National Stadium gig in Dublin. There was the full-length concert special from London on ITV, the handful of 'selected' dates in the US and the the tours up and down the UK with Big Country, Squeeze and others.

The 'difficult' second album - or sophomore album as the Americans like to call it - did not live up to CBS hopes. And expectations had been high. It was produced by Greg Ladanyi, who sadly died in a freak fall last year, at the age of 57. He had worked with top names such as Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon and Fleetwood Mac, but many felt his polished, clinical production on 'Witness...' failed to connect with the songs and took the band too far from their roots. Whether or not that was the case, and whether or not it made any difference, CBS ended their relationship with the band, hastening the end of a brief but glorious spell when four lads from Wexford came within touching distance of greatness.

Cry Before Dawn's two albums came out at a time when 33 rpm still meant something to music fans and vinyl and compact disc were still uneasy bedfellows. Now, 21 years after the release of ' Witness For The World' and 23 years after 'Crimes of Conscience', both are available for download from iTunes in a format not even dreamt of at the time of release. If anyone has any doubts that the world is not ready for the reunion next year, they should bear not only that in mind, but also the band's growing presence on Facebook and YouTube.

At the height of their success, by natural consequence or design, Cry Before Dawn carried a torch for Wexford. Merchandise included lapel pins in the shape of a pike (a symbol later adopted as their logo); videos were shot on location here (at the Dun Mhuire, St. Joseph's Club, and the deserted cattle mart site on Redmond Road); and sleeve artwork used pictures that were far from your bog standard tourist images, but identifiably Wexford nonetheless: a black and white shot of the band in King Street on the cover of ' The Seed...'; the old Protestant church in Rathaspeck (later favoured as a venue by the Wexford Model Railway Club) on 'Girl In The Ghetto'.

In the two decades since, Wexford has produced more creative high-achievers who carry a little bit of the town in their hearts: Billy Roche, Pierce Turner and Eoin Colfer. And yet, in the same way that Curracloe's pivotal role in 'Saving Private Ryan' goes largely unrecognised and untapped, there is little to inform the casual visitor of their significance.

Next year's Cry Before Dawn reunion will not change that, but it should serve as welcome distraction in these stringent times, especially to those old enough to remember the thrill of it all.

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