Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Radiators - Ghostown


Happy Paddy's Day, again. I wasn't able to up this as well as Loveless yesterday, but I thought I might as well do #3(b), in the The Top 40 Irish Albums as decided by the Irish Times, today. It's one I'd have a hard time deciding between it, Loveless, and The Undertones. The Radiators, formerly the Radiators from Space, dropped the added part of their name a) because they were here to stay (they weren't - they broke up after this album) or b) because it made them sound silly. Either way, the Radiators are generally considered the first Irish punk band. 1977's TV Tube Heart was a smart, sassy if a little rough punk album of the Buzzkockian kind. 1978/9's Ghostown was, in retrospect and in more finely judged criticism, a masterpiece. Tony Clayton-Lea from the Irish Times describes it thus:

"Underappreciated, a lost classic, a missed opportunity and a shocking example of how a truly great collection of songs can become entangled in music industry trends - Ghostown is all of these things and more. Following their 1977 debut, TV Tube Heart, the Radiators From Space shortened their name, moved to London and started to write and rehearse the material that would become Ghostown.

Like most second albums, it reflected a perhaps more truthful approach to their environment, which is why the guitar-driven, anthemic attacks of TV Tube Heart were replaced with intentionally literate and highly melodic songs such as 'Looting in the Town', 'Million Dollar Hero' and 'Song of the Faithful Departed'.

The juxtaposition of James Joyce and Sean O'Casey with The Beatles and Marc Bolan went completely over the heads of the UK critics and audiences, who perhaps to the punk-manor born, scornfully rejected the change of creative direction. Added to this was a year-long delay in getting the album released, which acted as another nail in the band's coffin.

What happened next? Ghostown stiffed, leaving main songwriter Philip Chevron to his own devices. He subsequently joined The Pogues. The band recently reformed."


Ghostown came twelve years before My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, and yet is in many ways every bit as creative. It is more of a post-punk than a punk album on account of its range of styles and sounds, though of course the lines and categories are more blurred then than at other times. The record has a strong pop sensibility to it as well, which belies its weightiness as some kind of literary and cultural statement. Ghostown is in fact many things, and all of them good.

It is an album which is, as befits the punk tradition, not overlong - 10 songs - but also broad and varied. It has its own sound, and yet incorporates a whole set of different influences; and it expresses itself not just in the tenacity, fierce- and gentleness of its music, but also in its lyrics. Like punk was meant to be, Ghostown was in no small way pop as art.

'Million Dollar Hero' starts things off with shimmering, new wave guitar and an undulating vocal line and echoing harmonies, and a seriously judicious saxophone:

"I'm a million-dollar hero

in a five-and-ten-cent store

....But if anyone asks you if I've passed along this way

it was just my outer image - just my outer image"

'Let's Talk About The Weather', despite its easygoing melody, is unconnected to R.E.M's Green ; and even despite its psychological, tortured lyrics:

"We knew the charges but never the crime

The charges haunt us like a nursery rhyme

win some, lose some

There must be some mistake

this emptiness is more than I can take"

'Johnny Jukebox' is the closest song to the original punk of The Radiators from Space, but revels in their own snarling version of doo-wop all the same:

"I'm Johnny Jukebox

survivor of the ghostown

dance for me"

And so on, the album crafts pop tunes with a variety of punk and pre-punk sounds, a rock and roll revival with high-minded sensibility. That clear 70s guitar sound slicing through every song, occasional swathes of piano or saxophone, gang vocals combine to create a wonderfully atmospheric sense of instrumentation without losing the verve of fast punk rock. More than anything else, Ghostown is a musically and lyrically smart punk record. Chevron proclaims in 'They're Looting in the Town', the song most like the eclectic beauty of the mid-period Clash records, that "the revolution in the air / is somewhat the worse for wear".

'Kitty Ricketts' brings in Tom Waits-like carnival rhythms, and references the 1969 James Plunkett novel Strumpet City , about the slums of Dublin in the early 20th century (it was made into a high quality TV drama by RTE the year after Ghostown was released) :

"She is handsome, she is pretty

She is the girl from Strumpet City

Oh please, can you tell me who is she?

Kitty Ricketts

You’re not there

But I can touch your hair

Kitty Ricketts

One, Two, Three

You’re a ghost, but I don’t care.

She’s a carnal joy

For nighttown boys

Whose five o'clock shadow begins at midnight"

But the peak of the album is the epic, balladic 'Song for the Faithful Departed' (sometimes just called 'Faithful Departed'). The lyrics by Philip Chevron reference the literary and religious history of Ireland, in a macabre and acerbic portrait of Irish society (anyone familiar with the work of Yeats might be able to pick out a few lines):

"This graveyard hides a million secrets

And the trees know more than they will tell

But the ghosts of the saints and scholars will haunt you

In heaven and in hell

.... Look across your shoulder and the school bell rings

Another day of made to measure history

I don't mind if your heroes all have wings

But your terrible beauty is torn"

Not just lyrically, but musically the song is outstanding. It in fact mentions the whiskey in the jar at the end, and Chevron's intonation has a touch of that other Phil - Linnott - but I would defy anyone not to rank the quality of this song above anything by Thin Lizzy. It's epic, and punk, a kind of quirky Irish Marquee Moon.

Here's the song being performed on Irish TV in 1980. There's some interesting points to be made: I'm not sure what show this is from, the video is posted by the band but it doesn't say - it's probably identifiable by the tacky stage set and the two second cut at the beginning of the wacko in the audience going "Oww" and shaking them in with his shoulders; someone in the comments brings up the interesting observation that the intro to the song sounds a bit like the opening bars to the Irish national anthem, Amhrán na bhFiann (watch the RTE version); and the close-ups show Phil Chevron doing an excellent Johnny Rotten impression. But most of all, it's awesome musically, for the 70s at least. Heck, for any time:

Faithful Departed, Irish TV 1980

Ghostown lyrics from www.theradiators.tv (PDF)


The Radiators - Ghostown (1978)

Chiswick Records CWK 3003 (reissued on Ace Records 2005)

Philip Chevron - The Captains and the Kings (1983)

Imposter IMP-001

This 7" solo single from Phil Chevron featured a song written by Brendan Behan (an excellent underground writer and playwright: see this Steady Diet of Books post) for his play 'The Hostage', and as a b-side, a solo version of 'Faithful Departed'. Mostly acoustic, with a string accompaniment, quite folky and playing up the Dub accent a bit more than on Ghostown (Kitty Ricketts' "Dubblin" and "citty loights" aside). I found this on power pop criminals and re-upped it to mediafire.


josephlovesit said...

Great post. I hadn't heard this before, and it's really cool. The songs are so solid. "Kitty Ricketts" is probably my favorite, Tom Waitsyness and all :P

I also like the handful of songs with little synth melodies, makes it sound fresh. Especially since they're only a background element and not the feature.

Downloaded The Undertones debut as well, hopefully I'll have time to listen later.

gabbagabbahey said...

ha, I think I first got this album around the same time as I got Tom Waits' Blood Money, so I was surprised to hear the same sound in a 1970s punk song. But then Waits was already releasing material at this stage anyway?

I might upload TV Tube Heart at some stage, it's not of the same quality as this though. But Undertones for deffo!

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Tom G said...

The TV show the clip is from is, I think, SBB ina suigh, sorry if I spelled that wrong, gailge isn't my strong suit.
Irish language music show presented by Sean Bawn Brannaic (again sorry for any misspelling) the S B B in the title which translates as 'SBB sitting'

gabbagabbahey said...

yep, SBB ina Shuí. presented by Séan Bán Breathnach.