Blood, Sweat and Sir Henry’s (First published Irish Times July 15th 2014)
House Music is a bit like Marmite… the temptation is to bracket all electronic music (or EDM to give it’s current incarnation) with the distasteful ‘Rave’ tag… to treat it with disdain prior to investigation. Of course Rave Culture (which in itself is a bit of a loose, reductive term) has sides to it that are fair game for parody. And granted, there are a lot of bad records, perhaps gathering dust, in the attic lofts of middle aged vinyl-junkies. (No more than a lot of bad Trad, Jazz, Prog & Punk, for other generations).
In fact, when approaching work on Deep, I wondered was there any other way for an audience to swallow the subject, other than sending-up the faded glow sticks and defunct whistles? Or, to take a tack with the other generally accepted wisdom: a Tabloid-like, demonising of the time… (which of course only fuelled the youth generation of the early 90s on further. An infamous article at the time of SWEAT@ Sir Henry’s inception has Manager Sean O’Neil holding his hands up: “I’m not Gerry Adams.”)
Perhaps an approaching 25th anniversary of SWEAT’s opening (1988-2013) made it timely to look back. Also, I had an instinct that the scene had neither been as glorious as the nostalgics would have it, nor as dreadful as it had been represented by the (sometimes Class-based) damning of the times. (The irony of Ireland’s take on the House Music phenomenon facing a wave of Prejudice not lost on me…) so I was convinced it deserved revisiting.
The risk of being scoffed-at, by audience and peers alike, was unavoidable. The 1990s road had been well travelled and tackling it again was in danger of stinking of the kind of cheap sentiment that is ,wrongfully or rightfully, charged at the time. I was only a passing fan of House Music from my late teens to my early 20s. And, was I taking in the significance of it all at the time? No, I was just having a good time and making an attempt at dancing. If I was now having to push passed my own prejudices, how could I ask the Nostalgics or the Nay-sayers to push passed theirs? What did the mythical era really achieve? How much of it, after the come down, listening back to old mix-tapes, is remembered through smiley-faced, rose-tinted glasses? And moreover, how to bring both sides of the argument to an audience who weren’t ‘there’ in the first place.
…But no more than a teenager trying to fit in with his peers by listening to whatever his generation dictates, this would have been the worst reason not to write about a direct experience of SWEAT. Taking a trip down the memory lane of South Main St. in Cork, along the long queue to the doors of the club, made me realise I’d reached a stage where fitting in was not so much of an agenda. Trying to second guess what an audience wants to see… what’s going to satisfy your peers… is a very successful way to write a bad play.
So I started digging… At what stage does any established music scene, Doo-Wop, Funk, Punk… go from; relevant, to passed-it, to retro… to accepted into the annals of music history?
When did the first Summer of Love at Haight/Ashbury go from; rebellious, to disillusioned, to trite (and no doubt the more conservative San Franciscans in 1969 found the scene a shallow, vacuous movement, and the music distasteful)… to now having a glare of romance attached to it? A generation who grew up in the Punk era, I’m sure, are going to see their time as ‘the’ time… much to the disparagement of the Prog die-hards.
In trying to see passed the given cliches, I found Deep House, originating in Chicago, was following a clear line through from Jazz, Soul, Disco (Frankie Knuckles, Godfather of House, (who sadly passed away this year) calling it ‘Disco’s Revenge’) and was pretty much the embryo for electro as we know it today.
But more pertinently maybe, the scene’s much maligned, seemingly cheap, overblown sentiments of an all-embracing utopian equality, had a genuine political agenda of good will. It stemmed from a reaction to the homophobic, racist outpouring against Disco in the late 70s (the common way of putting it was that ‘Disco never died. It was forced underground and found a new voice in House Music’). Like Gospel Music for the disenfranchised, House was seen as an alternate route to a kind of spirituality… and as it travelled across the Atlantic was welcomed as a timely anti-Thatcherite counter-culture in the UK.
Sir Henry’s, as a venue which well predated the 1990s, had a breadth of generations flowing through the doors. Rock fans through to Punk, post-punks & Goths caught gigs from International Acts, as well as a wealth of Cork bands (all being catalogued for an upcoming exhibition ‘sirhenrys2014’ at the Boole Library in UCC). Not to mention an Indie crop running concurrently with the club’s dance scene. The Club hosted the emergence of Cork bands The Sultans of Ping, The Frank & Walters, but also famously saw a very early Nirvana warming up for Sonic Youth… a gig which half the city claimed to have been at… in reality only a handful caught the warm-up that night in 1991. (3 of those being interviewed in the show)
In the UK there was a crossover between the emerging Indie acts, particularly in Manchester (housing arguably the UK’s best House Club: the Hacienda). It can be argued that without House there would have been no New Order, no Happy Mondays. Sweat@ Sir Henry’s was, in some ways, Ireland’s answer to what was emerging at the Hacienda. Perhaps with a similar Second-City Syndrome, and in true Cork style, SWEAT was very much ploughing it’s own furrow. Ireland’s first House Music Club was for a good deal of the 90s, (Corkonian self-aggrandising aside) the best place to be on the Island on a Saturday night. In an era when Bishop Casey marked the beginnings of far more shocking church scandals, Albert Reynolds waved in a post-Haughey era, Unemployment was at a record high (with Cork, worst effected) were the Sweat heads, consciously or no, reacting with a counter-culture they could call their own?
Encapsulating the story involved interviewing the clubs DJs, managers and die-hard punters (some of this footage part of the design of the show). DEEP is part-fiction, part-Documentary.
The Play follows the life of Larry Lehane, dancing in the footsteps of his older brother… attempting to fathom the ups and downs, the contradictions, comic and tragic, of personal, familial and societal change. A story of generations spanning the history of the club, exploring the social backdrop of our recent history. In a society ever more disillusioned with Institutions, Henry’s was a place that provided an unprejudiced cross-section of class, race, sex, creed (in a time when this was much harder to imagine). A sense of communion for those on the outskirts of the wider community. Just as much as the acid-house scene was demonised and vilified by the Tabloids… just that much did it become a way of life, a religion, for a whole generation joining the ‘Club’.
The key to the breadth and success of SWEAT@ Sir Henry’s 13-year residency is not an easy thing to pin down. And to have ‘been there’ for any of the club night’s trajectory is something you only really start to appreciate with nostalgic hindsight.
Every generation is going to be more precious about their own time. Every brand of music brings with it a sense of competition and loyalty. But I find it bizarre now to think of having loyalty to one particular strand of music over any other (which could have changed anyway within a given couple of years, a given trend). I find it harder to put a hierarchy on any one era’s creativity over another… to look down with any sense of musical snobbery (while ironically there was nothing short of an elitist war between vinyl junkies at the time, and ongoing).
In social terms, I recalled with the turn of the millennium …something seemed to sour with the scene and the general mood in the City.
So what had turned us off? …House Music was becoming cheap and dated in an emerging class, with a growing sense of ambition. There was a wonderful dynamic between the front bar (playing Deep House) and the back bar (Hip-Hop) at SWEAT… but ironically as the 90s progressed, the sounds which had spawned a new phenomenon were becoming the Movie soundtrack to a slowly emerging city, (if not a Nation), playing the role in a tall-tale about Progress. (Bristol Scene acts: Massive Attack, Tricky & Portishead were becoming the background to Blockbusters and Dinner Parties). Just as urban acts in the US had crossed over and were now dominating the charts, life in the city became more about super pubs, restaurants, and cleaner clubs… But throughout, refusing to bend, SWEAT@ Sir Henry’s remained true to the original Deep House sound… (residents Greg & Shane (fishgodeep) playing at the club for an unprecedented 13 years).
Some say the key to understanding House Music is to experience it in a room full of people. As an experiential, communal event between; a DJ and a crowd, in this particular room, on that particular night. (Harking up the spirit of the cliché ‘Were you there?’). Something you can’t create by listening to records alone. The lifelong fans will tell you the key to the longevity of SWEAT was the relationship between the resident DJs and their audience, and a shared love of the music, a relationship built up over many years. Something, again, very hard to imagine happening today.
As Henry’s closed, we were left wondering: had we lost our sense of community? Falling headlong into a new age of consumerism?
Today, House music’s legacy is ongoing… there is the more obvious commercial dominance of acts like Daft Punk at the Grammys, and festival filling EDM acts like Deadamau5. But also alternative acts like Mercury Award winner James Blake has more than a string of Garage to his bow… and a generation are having their formative years to the soundtrack of Disclosure & London Grammar (both acts harking back or stemming from a 90s sound).
Deep the show doesn’t take itself as seriously as all of the above. Larry Lehane’s trajectory brings laughter and tears in equal measure. And of course the main drive of a Saturday night at Sweat was not to have a socio-political discourse… but just to dance and have a good time. But the hope is that the play gives a new perspective on the generally accepted view of the 90s.
This is the story of an era told through the personal journey of a Vinyl Junkie who, at 35, is turning the tables on the peaks and troughs of two decades, from the rise of Acid House to the Euro Changeover.
SWEAT slowed to a stop at the end of 2001 just as the Euro replaced the Punt and those who pointed a righteous finger at the club are buying into another type of excess, a new kind of Boom. As Cork’s 80s emigration generation reflect on following the beat in perfect time for a Music Revolution we’re left wondering where the current generation’s counterculture is going to spring from?