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Irish Ways ... Irish Laws
The Moving Hearts Interview by Bill Graham
Bill Graham, 24 Oct 1981
This ain't no ceilidh, this ain't no sean-nós, this ain't no foolin' around; this ain't The Mudd Club or C.B.G.B.; exactly what is it then?
Moving Hearts who (intentionally?) name themselves the reverse of Talking Heads and reverse too all the terms. David Byrne's songs are oblique, descriptive and dissenting: Moving Hearts are direct, prescriptive and protesting. Talking Heads are artists, self-consciously tampering with ethnicity; Moving Hearts progress from ethnicity to art. This is the story of how one head found the Hearts.
For latecomers, a reprise. Moving Hearts are an assortment of seven, banded together to escape the constraints of Irish folk music. The initial motivating force was provided by two Planxty members, Christy Moore and Donal Lunny, who also supply the celebrity and the understanding of Irish traditional highways and by-ways; the other five, with the exception of piper Davy Spillane, from jazz and rock parishes, are the redecorators with the additional skills for the project. They are unhappy about being called folk-rock.
In fits and starts, that's one of the debates, this Western weekend that finds this reporter travelling from the shores of Sligo through the Donegal mountains. I have hardly arrived in Sligo before guitarist Declan Synott is testing me on my own definition of that nebulous term while he simultaneously asserts his dislike for the category.
In part he and his fellows can take the typical musicians' disregard for pigeon-holing to extremes, dropping only partial verbal clues about their direction and understanding of same. On another count however, such evasiveness is understandable since Moving Hearts bear little resemblance to either the American or English understanding of the term. Patently Moving Hearts will interest those who have followed the English folk-rock explorations of Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and The Albion Band but they distinguish themselves by using different jazz and rock filters whilst they also interpret songs from more eclectic and totally topical sources.
Fundamentally both the cultural task and milieu that motivates Moving Hearts couldn't be more different. English folk-rock, whilst performing necessary excavation work and producing music, shamefully ignored by today's pundits, literally seemed to pull up the drawbridge on modern Britain, sheltering amid limpid pastoral dreams of an unrestorable society. Neither the sound of the suburbs nor the city centre, it now languishes as the trend of the past twenty years, least likely to be looted. But in Ireland, discovering the relationship between our past and our present experience is an essential, pressing task and that is why Moving Hearts exist.
So far, so uncontroversial. However Moving Hearts are not a proposition unanimously approved by all in the rock community. They set up issues, compel responses. Controversies of politics and culture are unavoidable with Moving Hearts.
Moving Hearts, with Christy Moore in the van, vigorously supported the H-Block cause, a position that definitely disaffected the Northern rock contingent and more at both the Castlebar and Lisdoonvarna festivals, a nervousness best expressed by one Belfastite who feared the consequences should Moving Hearts be booked into the college that person controlled. No Irish band has ever been so explicit in its support of a political cause, and that an issue that particularly unsettles the Irish rock community.
The relations between Irish rock and politics aren't as simple as in Britain. There exists a consensus that Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, unemployment and the bomb are bad but in Ireland, it is the equivalent unemployed who kill and maim each other. Of necessity, Irish rock has striven to escape into a non-sectarian space, even at the cost of being apolitical. It is no accident that the North's first fanzine should be called 'Alternative Ulster' nor that its founders, Gavin Martin and Dave McCullough, in their later careers at NME and Sounds should be more sceptical than their companions about British efforts to mate music and radical politics.
But Moving Hearts shatter those tacit conventions. I didn't know if they understood what that meant but after three days on the road, clarification and communication were incomplete. Moving Hearts' vision of Ireland and mine overlap but no more.
Sligo, or rather Strandhill eight miles beyond the town, was an ideal starting-point. Up the road from the Baymount Ballroom, the location for this Friday night's performance, is the Venue Bar, owned by Planxty manager Kevin Flynn who also organises the Ballisodare Festival. Headquarters for the day, it was packed by Moving Hearts supporters, downing their drinks before the off in the Baymount. Partially because of their association with Flynn, Moore, Lunny and by extension Moving Hearts possess an especially loyal and knowledgeable audience in Sligo. It may not have been a home-town gig but it was close to it.
Yet the early talk is of unexpectedly low crowds. Their debut album, jut released in Dublin, has been moving fast out of the WEA warehouse but the audience on their dates so far hasn't matched their early impressive album sales. Moving Hearts aide, Terry O'Neill, speaks of 500 the previous night in Longford and wonders if the tour started a week early before the album can earn any airplay.
But it may be just the recession, forcing parsimonious fans to balk at the admission price of #4 even if the package includes the excellent Tokyo Olympics as support. The Moving Hearts tour may be value for money but some obviously can afford neither the value nor the money.
Even Baymount, a traditional Friday night out, pulls the respectable but hardly stunning number of 800, a turn-out compared with 12,100 for Hazel O'Connor the previous week. And when Tokyo Olympics start at 11.30, the majority are fuelling themselves at the bar.
So about 200 view the Olympics and their admirable funk interpretations. Frankly, the tour hasn't worked out as they intended. Their hope was that they could seize the opportunity of playing to Moving Hearts' following to win new converts but the alliance isn't really happening. Too many dates have been sit-down concerts uncongenial to the Olympics' dance persuasion and even in the ballroom, however capably they play and however tempting their material, the bulk of the audience has decided to be immune. Tonight is the one night they win an encore, but the general message to Tokyo Olympics is that the Moving Hearts audience doesn't show the same enterprise as their sponsors. Their audience's uncertainty about the Olympics must say something about Moving Hearts' appeal.
There is no such dereliction of duty when the Hearts appear. The audience in the room doubles as they perform a set that comprises all the album bar the instrumental 'Lake Of Shadows' plus the rock'n'reel 'Skibbereen, 'On The Blanket' and three new songs, 'Black Dog' by Jesse Winchester, 'What About Me?' by Jesse Otis Farrow through Quicksilver Messenger Service and a new Mick Hanley song about the oppressive Catholic ethos of his home town Limerick. Also on board are their two revisions of previous Christy Moore solo material, 'Nancy Spain' and 'One Last Cold Kiss'.
First impressions are that Moving Hearts are a listening rather than a dance band. The instrumentals are for aural rather than physical pleasure and though Spillane, Synott and Donal execute a swirling luxurious sound, underpinned by Lunny's keyboards, they don't sway their audience to dance.
Moving Hearts music is rich but also sometimes cluttered, an imbalance that injures 'Black Dog'. Winchester's version on his debut Bearsville album was spare, the sound of a solitary tormented nightmare but Moving Hearts heap on lustrous horn voicings that are inappropriate to Winchester's vision of paranoia. At this point, Moving Hearts may be so understandably aroused by their success that they've forgotten how silence and space also have their merit.
The other two new songs suit their headlong style better while 'Nancy Spain' is a ribald, forthright and artless savaging of a Moore relic. But it's still the album material that conjures up the most positive response. Down the road from Dooney, Moving Hearts play like the wave of the sea, rushing up to the Strandhill Shore, washing over the ear in surges of concentrated power and colour. With a rowdy, relaxed audience, this is to be the most atmospheric performance of the three I witness.
The next afternoon promised so much. On the drive to Letterkenny, a blue sky and the clear air showed off the Western countryside in postcard magnificence, particularly to these eyes too accustomed to the cramped city vistas. The tedious grey spans of English and American motorways - the usual road routine - could not have been further away and for once I forgot the visually dispiriting and enclosing experience of normal rock travel.
It should have been the perfect backdrop for a perfect Moving Hearts day but Evening reality in Letterkenny was otherwise. The band has misbooked themselves into the wrong hall and forgotten Irish weekend customs.
You shouldn't play a hall, nobody goes to. You shouldn't play a dry hall at nine in the evening when your potential audience is filling itself up with liquor allsorts elsewhere. Nor should you play on a night when fellow folk convert to rock, Paul Brady, is playing down the road in Donegal or when your fellow WEA labelmates are playing later in the licensed golden Grill ballroom in the same town. The competition was stiff, the hall was unattractive and anyway Moving Hearts were playing in Glenties, twenty miles away, the following night. In retrospect, nobody should have been surprised that they drew little more than 200. The hall was the Letterkenny Community Centre, one of those drab unwelcoming modern barns. Endorsed by official architecture. Both bands played proficiently but no one would call it a party. The midnight drive to Glenties was more memorable.
There next afternoon in the Highland Hotel, we got to talk. It wasn't the easiest interview to handle since the whole band sat in, a policy not conducive to uninterrupted dialogue. Moving Hearts can be cagey in their press dealings, an attitude confirmed when Christy Moore pointed to his tape recorder and announced that he'd be taping the interview too. So this conversation is not the only one in his collection, either. We begin uncontentiously but also by taking refuge in diplomatic generalisations until I suggest that many purists may be appalled by their policy, particularly if they hold to the belief that all Irish music should be judged according to the example of the lone instrumentalist or singer.
*That's traditional music by definition,* responds Lunny. *It's music that does turn in on itself. Even though it's alive, it keeps going back taking the old tunes, polishing them up, putting them out and then they get sort of worn out and put away again. It's a great process in its own way and they're taken by very good musicians and honed a bit further and then they're remembered for that and then cast aside again. It's really strong in Ireland but it's not creative in the same way as writing contemporary music or indeed writing with an open mind.*
Declan Synott expresses a slight bewilderment: *I'd like to know what these opinions are. It's hard to find out what they are. It's hard to know what people think. All you're going to hear is praise.*
Synott also opens the topic of folk-rock saying that the English bands approached it in a different manner. *I think the way they thought about it was radically different than the way we think about it. It's hard to put a finger on it but when you listen to that music, it's more deliberate blending of things, more thought out. I was going to say earlier that part of the reason (for me anyway), I want to try things in a certain way, is that I want to hear it - not for other people to hear it but so I can hear it. I hear the music on the album now and I know what all those ideas, all that work led to.*
Following that train of thought he adds: *If we could play straight rock'n'roll or straight anything, even traditional music and listen to it and say, 'Great', that would be it but I don't think that's possible anymore because it won't be alive for me.*
For Synott, playing music *alive* is more important than jerry-building any combination of styles. Moore thinks that the English bands *took old tunes and where possible they tried to incorporate bass, drums and electric guitar but it never became part of the music. It was always incidental to the actual tune.*
Prompted by Moore, Lunny discloses his own metaphor: *It was rather like adding a modern extension to a very old house. It always seemed to me like it was stuck on. There wasn't very much sensitivity in terms of the tunes that were done.* The themes also seemed to be those of an 18th century idyll, hardly relevant to someone living on the 15th floor of a high-rise?
Donal now contributes: *If we have to make comparisons, which I don't think we should do, a better one would be Bob Dylan who came from the Woody Guthrie tradition. He wrote his own stuff and got a very contemporary band of excellent musicians to play it for him. Would that be a more helpful comparison?*
The others ponder that awhile before Synott responds that Dylan showed *that what Chuck Berry did with fast-talking rock'n'roll and what Woody Guthrie did and Leadbelly did with the Blues were very similar, just different periods. And did in fact integrate things in a way that you couldn't see the seam. In that way he's totally different to Steeleye Span or Fairport Convention in that you could always see the seam. That's what was wrong with the music.
Such are the snares Moving Hearts strive to avoid but their working methods aren't conducive to the freest expression of their originality, as they'll readily admit themselves.
Though they write their own instrumentals, Moving Hearts interpret the songs of others. This needn't be a failing since rock tends to over-value self-expression. (How many wasted tracks on an album only satisfy a band's avarice for royalty income?) But it may lead to Moving Hearts seizing on songs that don't exactly express their own ideas.
Christy Moore will convincingly deny that and answer that Moving Hearts are most careful in their quality control. Besides, as a solo singer for over a decade he says, *it's a process I'm well used to because I've always sung other people's songs. Even if they were hundreds of years old, they were still other people's songs so there's nothing new about it to me. It's not difficult.*
Prompted, he'll admit he figures he has a second sense, adding: *the most important thing to me is not I'm singing it. The most important thing about a song is (1) what it says, and (b) how it says it. If it fulfils the requirements we have on those counts, we will adapt it to suit my singing.*
Or as Synott interjects, sometimes Moore *will adapt his singing to suit it*.
But the matter of material also connects to their work load. On one level, Moving Hearts may have the psychological block of perfectionists towards songwriting, on another level they'll agree that their extensive touring through Ireland this year has hampered and delayed their musical progress.
Moving Hearts aren't youngbloods without families to support and no Irish record company can offer them the advance that would allow for an oasis of creativity and reflection so they've been compelled to concentrate on the maintenance of their basic set and live work for their fiscal health.
*Basically when you're in a rehearsal situation and you've got a deadline, a tour coming up or an album, you tend to play safe,* explains Synott. *Like there are ridiculous ideas we could try, but in a short space of time we won't try them.*
Moore concurs: *I've seen times at the last rehearsal when an idea would come up and maybe people would start developing it and I'd just have to say 'Look lads, we're starting a tour on Friday week, we still have only one new number and we just have to leave it out for now.' I used to feel terrible for saying it but that was the reality of the situation.*
So what of their album? Elsewhere, I'm on record in thinking the album a scattered affair, momentous on 'No Time For Love' and 'Hiroshima Nagasaki Russian Roulette' but laggard on tracks like 'Faithful Departed' and 'After The Deluge'. My own hunch was that the faulty tracks had been recorded prematurely - they certainly were more impressive at Castlebar after the album had been recorded - but the band disagree with my analysis.
Eoghan O'Neill leads off with the opinion *that some of the tracks were recorded too late. The very first demo of 'Hiroshima' captured more of the feeling.*
Declan Synott reminds me that *the gig at Castlebar was probably better than the first date of this tour. It's just doing so much work on the trot that you get so familiar with the material but you're not necessarily a better band for recording.*
Perhaps I should accept that my own experience of one date was deceptive. Certainly we can reach a consensus that there is much more music in the band than the album presents. As Declan Synott joked earlier on another topic: it's a tip of the iceberg vibe.
This far, we've conducted an unclouded interview but we've steered clear of politics. Henceforth communication becomes muddied since we have widely differing viewpoints. It would be best if I concisely state my own philosophy.
Despite all the clumsiness and oft premeditated brutality of the security forces in Northern Ireland, I don't believe they or the British link are the primary problem. Despite the obvious discrimination practised by the Stormont government, I don't believe the continued violent response of the IRA can be excused by past injustices or current military mistreatment. Northern Ireland has its own particular culture of violence, its own particular tradition of communal hatred that operates quite unhappily and increasingly without reference to Britain or the South. I don't believe a united Ireland or the ending of the British guarantee will defuse the differences between the Catholic and Protestant communities.
More specifically, I cannot agree with the H-Block protest. Certainly some prisoners were mistreated, certainly some were wrongly convicted in special courts, certainly confessions were extracted by physical intimidation, but were the dirty protest and the hunger strike not disproportionate responses, further confrontations that exacerbated the cycle of sectarian hatred and violence?
Comparison is made too facilely with Third World regimes such as Chile and South Africa that have absolutely no democratic consent. One moment the IRA appeal to humanitarian democratic principles; the next, they rule and kill by their own self-elected law of the gun. The injustices of Northern Ireland are comparatively venial when compared to atrocities and genocide in other more disadvantaged places in the world; when compared to the homelessness, hunger and disease of any Third World capital.
Ultimately I identify with the amazement of Nobel Peace Prize winner Mother Teresa of Calcutta who was at a loss to understand how First World men could refuse food on a planet where children starve to death, daily.
This is not Moving Hearts' view. They are entitled both to their opinions and to the right to express them in their songs, but they can't avoid being examined. I don't think every member of the band has thought their beliefs through.
I begin by sketching the attitudes of the Northern rock community and its concern to maintain a non-sectarian approach even if it leads to apoliticality. I figure I got misunderstood.
Donal Lunny answers: *That's for the bands in the North. The way I see it, non-sectarian space doesn't need to be created in the South. There's a huge void in the South between the two issues. [I presume he means rock and politics; interviews can be so confusingly ungrammatical.] In the North, maybe it does have to be bridged - but we're not in that environment and maybe our attitudes are different.*
But you're propagating a united Ireland, yet you're saying we here in the South...?*
*The band is making comments about inequalities,* Lunny continues haltingly, steering elsewhere. *You could say that about all the songs that say something, they are expressing an opinion about inequality and it's a very important thing to do. The danger is that depending on what you say, people push you to one side or the other. It's not really the case. The way I feel is that I haven't changed over the last ten years of my life except that I have become aware of the worth of expressing an opinion of something that should be changed.*
One question, another answer; the interview as hide-and-seek.
Anyway I try to trace out the reason for this change, this unleashing of commitment. Lunny, Moore and Synott all speak of their involvement in the Irish anti-nuclear movement as a watershed. Before Carnsore, Moore says that *political songs were being sung but, for me, the involvement with the anti-nuclear movement was the first time one had the opportunity to be involved in something that was relevant to today, people taking their music and lending it to something that was here and now.*
Synott adds: *That movement was the first time you might have to change the lyric in a song because of what was in the newspapers that morning. It was that close to reality.*
That was one cause particularly true to the experience of Wexford man Synott, who lived close to where the reactor would have been sited. But is there the same exact relationship between their experience and their expression in other songs? We get into a tussle over the lyrics of 'No Time For Love', a song written by Jack Warshaw of The Men Of No Property, a group with members from Belfast and Derry. I select the lyric about *The Fish In The Sea*. Couldn't that be interpreted as support for the IRA?
Moore doesn't quite twig but makes his own comments about Bobby Sands and the IRA. He explains the insert of Bobby Sands' name as support for the hunger strike. He says, *There have been repeated references made because of the inclusion of Bobby Sands' name that the song is direct support for the IRA, and despite the individual people in the band, I don't even know what some people's attitudes are to the IRA. We all have our individual opinions.*
But presumably there is a band consensus?
Synott replies: *The band consensus doesn't support the IRA or their actions. We agree on what we can. What we don't agree doesn't come out in any kind of statement. What we agree on is the treatment of the prisoners. That was happening when the band was forming so we thought we must say something.*
Moore expands, remarking: *I think if we made an album and made no references whatsoever to the hunger strike in which ten people had died when the album was being made and made no reference to that, I don't think you have any claims to being relevant.*
Declan Synott recites the debatable line: *The fish need the sea to survive/Just like your comrades need you/And the death squad can only get through to them/If first they can get through to you.*
*That's a very general line, I think,* he claims.
I don't so believe but we're getting lost in a typical interview snarl-up of semantics and misunderstanding. I'm expecting Moving Hearts to either admit or realise that *fish* and *the sea* are two terms from Chairman Mao's guidelines for guerrilla warfare, that the *fish* are the gunmen, terrorists, freedom fighters or what you will, that the *sea* is the population that accepts and shelters them. I expect that the band are sufficiently politically tutored to understand the reference so in the pressure of the conversation, I'm not explaining it to them. It's a running snag; they still don't twig.
We get into an unresolved debate on the hunger strike before Keith Donald lucidly intervenes to bring us back to the song. *I think the song is about repression and there's always been repression in the North. Up to 1969, you had repression in the areas of voting, housing and employment. When people marched peacefully to point that out, they were beaten by Protestant thugs. In uniform, some of them. Things have changed now and people are still protesting about repression but repression has got more devious. It's institutional repression, it's torture, it's special courts and special prisons.*
*I think you're over-simplifying the song,* Moore continues, *you're going from the third verse where there's a reference to Bobby Sands to the sixth verse and you're asking us, are we comrades of Bobby Sands?*
So questioned, I finally explain the Maoist terminology, that it isn't a newly-minted metaphor, that it has associations open to such interpretation.
Donal Lunny re-enters, confession, *I must say that I was ignorant of the Maoist aspect of it.*
Ultimately, it seems a matter of slackness. Moving Hearts pick up a song that generalises about repression and then insert a reference to Bobby Sands, so changing the resonance and possible interpretations in the final verse. They say they didn't intend a line that could be interpreted to mean *shelter the gunmen* and I believe them. Nonetheless, they're still innocents, caught napping by the secret codes of Irish political language.
In Britain, neither The Clash nor The Beat have such problems nor need they be subjected to what may appear over-pedantic questioning. But in Ireland, the gap between principles and armed policy is not so comfortingly wide.
We throw around other less contentious themes. Mostly they revolve around my Sunday Tribune review and Declan Synott courteously chides me for certain misinterpretations. He doesn't accept my contention that Moving Hearts' rock is confined to pre-'77 models, saying that the sound could be deceptive and he knows that there are Talking Heads influences in the subsoil. But, he adds, *It's a musical influence rather than the influence of attitude.*
He also thinks that I underestimate the instrumentals. He's probably right: I do prefer Wordy Rappinghood.
I offer the idea of a realignment of Moving Hearts' music towards the spirit, if not the exact sounds, of the Third World. He's sympathetic and admits an interest in African music but as for Jamaica, he says, *I've heard too much bad reggae.* It's also possible that he's reluctant to tamper with and re-colonise another culture's music. All we agree on before we depart for dinner is that added doses of percussion mightn't hurt.
And so after the meal, excellently cooked and served by Patti and Sean Cannon's travelling kitchen, Moving Hearts play Glenties.
Both audience and atmosphere are mid-way between Sligo and Letterkenny, 500 appear, respectfully seated, observe Tokyo Olympics' pleas for a dance revolution and keep their backsides firmly settled. Moving Hearts play famously but I can't help thinking that my Ireland and my visions aren't co-relative to theirs.
This band will grow and we may need someone to shatter the consensus. But Moving Hearts are folk-rock, not folk-pop tutored to a certain understanding of rock music that doesn't permit the deflecting perspectives of Bertolt Brecht and Andy Warhol. Perhaps they think such interpreters are foreign. Or am I being too greedy, demanding of Moving Hearts that they be half-a-dozen other non-existent bands that would use other means to probe the relationship between our cultural traditions and the modern electronic media that irreparably distort it? Probably the best criticism is music itself.
Still if they intend to be *relevant*, here's an issue from this week's papers - the Northern Ireland gay community, scourged by Paisley, O'Fiach, the RUC, IRA, UDA and British Army, who had to go to the European Court of Human Rights for justice. Would Moving Hearts take songs supporting homosexuals to the halls? What then would be Irish ways and Irish laws?