Updated: Mar 3, 2020
A sunny Saturday in ye olden times Saturday, 13 July 1985 is remembered by most people as the momentous day of LiveAid. It was bakingly hot and I clearly remember the impact of that incredible event. To this day, I can't hear The Cars' "Drive" without running that heartbreaking video in my head. But - just to get a little egomaniacal for a moment - it was also the day on which I completed my first ever demo as a singer and songwriter.
"Down To Earth" was recorded in Origin Studios in Santry. Earlier that week, the basic tracks (synths, drum programmes and vocals) had been laid down across the eight analogue channels available. Studio owner, engineer, producer and all-round-good-egg Terry Merrick arranged that we would mix the track early on Saturday morning, with the aim of being finished in time for the start of LiveAid. That Saturday was an absolute scorcher. I bussed across from Greenhills to Santry, sweltering but trying to muster some kind of newbie pop tart cool. Not a chance. Terry had been sunbathing when I arrived and reluctantly pulled on clothes to begin work on the mix.
Closet case That week marked my first time in a recording studio and, of more significance to me, it was the first time I had ever sung in front of another person. I had begun writing the songs that had simply come into my head by singing them into a tape-recorder in my room. My family didn't know about this. Ours was not a musical household and it had taken a heavy-duty campaign of pestering to even get my mother to buy our first record player. I was 12 when she finally gave in and brought home the turntable housed in a red suitcase that would give me endless hours of joy and entertainment throughout my teenage years. So when it came to the issue of singing and songwriting, it felt weird. We Kavanaghs weren't show-offs; we didn't put ourselves out there and had no truck with uppityness and precociousness. So when I sang those early songs into my tape recorder, I did so under my duvet or wedged into my wardrobe between shirts and jeans. This had nothing to do with optimum acoustics; it was all about embarrassment.
Naturally, those early songs were no great shakes. I had no schooling in music (unless marathon sessions with ABBA vinyl counts as education - and I'd kind of argue that it does, to some degree). I couldn't read or write sheet music, I couldn't play an instrument. I simply sang and loved it. I had absolutely no idea whether I sounded like a crow or a nightingale but it was so cathartic, I just couldn't stop. So you can imagine that blowing my savings on studio sessions was quite a risk. Would I be laughed out the door and have to change my name and leave the country in shame? I was bricking it, quite frankly, that first evening when I turned up at Origin to face the unknown.
Euroambition I have always loved Eurovision and the idea of being an entrant was the stuff of my innocent and naive dreams back then. In late 1984, RTÉ put out the annual call for entries and set an early-December deadline. I had about 5 or 6 songs secreted away on cassettes in my room and I felt sure that the *ahem* moving ballad,"Down To Earth" was a contender. I got the info from RTÉ and my heart sank. A demo wasn't essential but sheet music was an absolute requirement. Bugger. I dug out the Golden Pages and starting cold-calling musicians and arrangers and even piano teachers. I was eventually put in touch with a final year music student from Trinity. I rang him and outlined my predicament and, having agreed a fee (that I later discovered was extortionate), I sent him the cassette of me singing sheepishly into a tape recorder.
A couple of weeks later, just two days ahead of the RTÉ deadline, I collected the manuscript. I sat on the DART back into town gazing at the unintelligible dots and squiggles. It felt surreal. I made photocopies of the manuscript, and bribed a colleague to type up the lyrics and I ferried the package out to RTÉ in person. At this point, I felt it necessary to 'come out' to my parents about my secret doings, just so as they wouldn't get a shock when they saw me on the telly a few months later, racking up douze points after douze points in my inevitable Eurovision triumph. I needn't have worried: the we-regret-to-inform-you arrived in early January.
Losing the run of myself Not too deterred by my Eurofailure, I started scouting out for other song contests. The only problem was that they all required demos. Which is how another round of blind cold-calling led me to Terry Merrick's 8-track recording studio. Having the sheet music meant that he didn't have to deal with the appalling acapella cassette scenario. In July 1985, I sat and listened to him play the piano arrangement - it was the first time I had heard it. It was nothing like the grandiose, heartbreaking, ABBAesque masterpiece in my head. But we went with it. Electric piano was layered with plinky synth figures and synthesized string sounds. Moog for bass. Programmed drums. Very mid-80s. I clearly remember standing behind the microphone for the first time. I was wearing headphones and, all around me, were scattered studio paraphernalia: guitar cases, music stands, microphones, a dismembered drum kit. This was the real deal. Terry lowered the lights just before he ran the tape. It was like being in my own video.
Reality bites Anyway, I finally took home three cassettes of the final mix and the master tape (reel-to-reel) just as LiveAid was starting. "Down To Earth" never won any song contests. It never won any hearts either. My mother, rather unconvincingly, declared it "nice" and even I wasn't sure I liked anything about it. My voice on tape sounded nothing like the voice in my head. The song didn't sound like anything that would trouble the charts anywhere.
But the urge to sing and write survived the sense of anticlimax. As a 21st birthday present to myself, I bought a Casio keyboard. The Casiotone MT-68 'electronic musical instrument' to be precise. I taught myself to play. Well, I say play. What I managed to do was pick out melody lines. I never managed to learn chords. But I used it to write and, in fact, my next demos 'Games' (November 1985 - it sounded brutally like The Human League in Toytown) and 'Smalltown Minds' (March 1986 - actually a decent song, and my first stab at co-production) were written on this machine. They won't appear on the forthcoming album but two other tunes that I wrote in 1986 will. So stay tuned.