With three demos under my little belt, the next logical step seemed to be live performance. The problem for me, however, was (a) I couldn’t play an instrument and (b) I had no band. While I was scouting around for song contests (in which I would undoubtedly triumph, thus kick-starting chart domination, worldwide), I saw an ad for a new kind of talent show. Entrants in the imaginatively named Starsearch could perform hits of the day to professionally-recorded backing tracks. For those who have rumbled the premise, I can tell you that the word ‘karaoke’ had not yet been heard in Ireland in 1986. I was fascinated by the efficient solution it seemed to provide. Local heats would be followed by a national final in Flamingos Nightclub in Stillorgan. The lure of such glamour was impossible to resist. The application pack included a fairly limited selection of pop titles, from which I had to pick five, ranked in order of my preference. My number one choice was Feargal Sharkey’s “A Good Heart.” I can’t remember what options two, three and four were. Sod’s Law decreed that my lowest-ranked song would be the one I’d be assigned. And so it was that, in some remote ‘nite klub’ up the Dublin mountains (it was near Crooksling: if anyone can remember it, please let me know!), I popped my performance cherry.
Doin' it for love
Resplendent in white trousers, a jacket implanted with enormous shoulder pads, and my hair gelled into lethal spikes that wouldn’t have budged in a wind tunnel, I took to the stage/ dancefloor with my knees knocking. As the spotlight swung in my direction, I felt sure that the microphone would pick up my panicked heartbeat. Then – boom! – the intro to my track kicked off and I launched into my amateur routine.
Even now, I’m sure that it was the kind of thing you’d watch though your fingers but, although nobody really knew the song, people actually seemed to be dancing. Hey, I was fabulous and not even the choice of Sheena Easton’s non-hit Do It For Love could derail this fierce pop ingénu. I finished, overshooting the cold ending with an awful ad lib, and a handful of people clapped feebly.
The next contestants were three girls performing a song by the Mary Jane Girls. Their hair was much bigger than mine, their clothes were miniscule and they sang amazingly tight harmonies. Oozing natural sex appeal and a no-prisoners stage presence, these girls not only wiped the floor with me, they wrung me out, dunked me back in their metaphorical bucket and used me to scrub a stubborn stain in the corner. I taxi’d back home to Greenhills with my tail between my legs and a troop of doubts marching through my head. This whole pop lark mightn’t be for me after all.
But I felt I had to justify the expense of the demos I
had recorded, so I kept entering song contests and amassed an impressive collection of rejection letters. Their cumulative disheartening effect was such that any positive commentary was as welcome as a tap in
In early ’87, In Dublin magazine ran a competition for unsigned songwriters. Naturally, I entered all three demos and, naturally, I didn’t win. The top prize of a two-day recording session in Litton Lane Studios was something I really wanted. But it was not to be.
A couple of weeks later, I got a surprise phone call from one of the competition judges. He had been particularly taken with my song Games and, much to my surprise, assured me that he had championed it. Disappointed on my behalf, he had negotiated a 50% discount for me in Litton Lane Studios, if I was interested, and that offer included the services of a producer and engineer. I was flabbergasted and, having taken a little while to rationalise the financial side of things, I accepted the offer.
This was a whole new tin of biscuits. This time around, I had 16 audio tracks to play with and a producer/musician/ programmer with a new sound. Litton Lane Studio has long since ceased to exist and the building now houses a youth hostel. But back in October 1987, it was the kind of studio you’d see in pop videos. Having arrived a bit early for the session, I went to the canteen (yes, an actual canteen!) to wait. Soon, this ridiculously handsome guy came over and introduced himself as Leo Grant, my producer. He led me up to the studio to meet Louise McCormick, who would be engineering the session.
Having been used to Terry’s more modest set-up in the extension of his Santry home, I was prepared to be totally overwhelmed by this ‘proper’ studio. But Leo and Louise couldn’t have been nicer and they really put me at ease. My distinctly pop leanings were not an issue and, better yet, Leo had worked out a catchy arrangement that transformed my tear-soaked ballad Watching helplessly into a frothy pop dance track. The results were streets ahead of anything I had managed before and I suppose it helped that the tune was better too. I was so pleased with the results that I worked out a strategy to record a second track with Leo at the helm. Following a conversation with the competition judge, Leo persuaded me to re-record Games, replacing the plinky-plonky jingle of my original demo with a smoother '80s dance groove.
Close but no cigar
The quality of the recordings was such that the Irish head of Polygram agreed to meet me. He was lukewarm about Games but thought that Watching helplessly – redolent of the contemporary Stock/Aitken/Waterman hits – had real potential. The problem was that the rest of my repertoire needed serious development. He recommended that I find myself a band, hone my writing skills and develop a potential album with them. While I was nowhere near getting a record deal, at least I had been taken seriously and had gotten some constructive advice.