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Tome On The Range

A World That Has Vanished: The Dublin Of Dr Strangely Strange
The Quietus , October 19th, 2019 10:23

In an exclusive extract from his new book, Fitting Pieces To The Jigsaw, Adrian Whittaker recalls the Dublin of the 1960s that gave birth to psych-folk group Dr Strangely Strange

Dublin was the birthplace of Dr Strangely Strange. In the early Sixties, it embodied a weird mixture of age-old tradition and the first stirrings of some kind of counterculture. The consensus is that the spirit of the Sixties only really swept Dublin the following decade. 

It was still a place where many pubs had no women’s toilets, where women would only be served half-pints, and where they would often not be served at all if they wore short skirts. It was also common for men with long hair to be banned. Contraception was illegal, although there was a small black market in condoms, run by Northerners. The Catholic Church was so powerful that it came very close to getting the government to impose a ban on all women under 18 from leaving the country, to prevent possible pregnancy. It was a place where the showbands had a stranglehold on the pop music scene and had an enforced break for the whole of Lent, where black people were objects of curiosity at best, where the gay scene was restricted to one bar, and where Catholics would be excommunicated for attending Trinity College (unless they were dentists).

In the introduction to a book of Dublin photos from 1966, Brian Leyden evokes the atmosphere in the streets:

It is hard to appreciate the silence that fell over Dublin on long hot summer Sundays in the 60s. The population at rest after Sunday Mass and the midday Sunday dinner. No shopping. Everything closed. No cattle herded to the boat. No traffic congestion. Just the sun-struck glass of closed shop windows. The pub doors bolted. The Holy Hour in force across Ireland.

The photos show Dublin’s streets are almost empty of traffic, with more bicycles in evidence than cars. Men wear trilbies in bars. A woman holds a clay pipe between her teeth. Cows are herded down streets. Horses and carts act as lorries, hauling loads. A woman walks up the steps towards what looks like a derelict building; it’s one of the tenements that were still in existence then. People look poor. It’s a compelling insight into a world that has vanished.

The political party in power, Fianna Fáil, had an unchanging remit of austere nationalism, strongly influenced by the Catholic church, and the overall political climate in Dublin was little different. The local Holy Hour, introduced under pressure from the right-wing Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, was a piece of law that forced Dublin pubs to close, not just on Sunday afternoons, but from 2.30 till 3.30 in the weekday afternoons. It was created so working men, who were paid weekly on a Friday morning, would have to leave the pub, go home to their wives and thus avoid spending all their wages there.

Most housing in Dublin was severely overcrowded and many working-class people still lived in the old tenements, with no piped water and with outside, shared toilets. Turf fires were the normal heating, even in shops and bars. Council house construction was at the lowest rate in Europe, and those living privately in newer conversions were not protected by rent control, which meant ever-spiralling rents. A 1969 housing report states: “Housing is a form of poverty which affects every member of a family. And the pattern of crime, desertion and alcoholism in [Irish] major towns can be traced to a large degree to a policy of making people live in conditions which are unbearable.” A growing squatting scene and the adoption of shared houses (like the one most of the band lived in from 1965 onwards) were part of the response to the housing crisis.

There is a fascinating TV documentary by literary historian Anthony Cronin, compiling footage from the beginning of this era, largely filmed in melancholy, spartan pubs, profiling the Dublin writers Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan and Flann O'Brien. The literary greats, like Yeats, Joyce and Beckett are long gone from the city, which is portrayed as isolated and self-regarding, narrow and puritanical, a provincial place from which the creatives like Joyce and Beckett needed to escape or became, like Brendan Behan and Flann O’Brien, trapped by drink and the negativity of their peers.

But there were some islands of otherness.

Dr Strangely Strange grew organically out of the early Sixties scene around Trinity College, Dublin, where founder members Ivan Pawle and his friend Tim Booth had both been students. Like the band members themselves, TCD was in no way typically Irish. It was effectively a Protestant university, for a start. It had been created in 1592, at a time when the English state was strengthening its control over the kingdom and when Dublin was beginning to function as a capital city. Politically, the plan had been to bring Ireland into the mainstream of European learning and strengthen the Protestant Reformation within the country.

In the Sixties, Trinity retained a strong Protestant tradition. Around the time Ivan and Tim Booth (and the two brothers of Tim Goulding, the eventual third Strangely) studied there, Trinity had 3,000 students, of whom only 800 were Catholics. Most were English Catholics; hardly any Irish Catholics enrolled as undergraduates as the Catholic Church still effectively banned attendance. An Irish Catholic who enrolled without the permission of Archbishop McQuaid was committing a mortal sin. A case had to be made directly to him to obtain the necessary dispensation: studying dentistry, a course not available on Catholic premises, was usually deemed acceptable. To boost falling student numbers, TCD had increased its enrolment of students from Britain and the United States. At this point, nearly half the student body came from outside the island of Ireland, making it an unusual, even unique institution – a small, multicultural, mainly Protestant university, curiously cut off from, but also part of an old Catholic city. One writer described it as ‘an eccentric little world.’

The public perception of TCD was that all the students were sons of well-off (Protestant) farmers, but the truth was far from that. It was certainly predominantly male, and women were not permitted to live on campus: they had to leave the premises by early evening. The student body, though, was a cosmopolitan mix of visiting Americans and Africans, posh boys, proto-hippies and ascetic Beckettians. The college had strong connections with modern Irish literature: Samuel Beckett had both studied and taught at Trinity, and the novelist JP Donleavy, part of the vanguard of modern Irish literature in the Fifties, had come over from New York to study science at Trinity and stayed on in Ireland since then.

There was no real pop or rock music scene at Trinity; it had a folk club and sometimes a Jazz And Blues Society (mostly for listening to records). The singer Ian Whitcomb, in the charts in 1965 with You Turn Me On, writes about his time there in Rock Odyssey. “The campus was a haven for oddities: obscure Scottish peers, eccentric offspring of ancient British families, an Egyptian count, a Mauritanian Teddy Boy, and a couple of African tribal chiefs.” His band, Bluesville Manufacturing, found themselves slotted into the showband circuit: “The showbands were pretty dreary affairs of enervating ballads and wet-rock, accompanied by demure high-kicking and the swinging of instruments from right to left in strict unison.” Writer Damian Corless sums up the ballroom scene in a recent memoir: “The showbands ruled the roost of the Irish ballroom circuit… they were highly paid to be human jukeboxes, faithfully reproducing the hits of the day… listening in to the Radio Luxembourg Top Twenty in the hope of catching the gist of the new entries. They were just about the only show in town.”

The ‘haven for oddities’ was a fertile breeding ground for all kinds of plans and projects. Another Trinity student, Iain Sinclair, notes that the countercultural aspects of Trinity were affected by the visiting Americans, like Ivan’s friend Tony Lowes: “They brought a degree of Lower East Side energy (and reference and drugs). And money. They liked to get things done. Against the local inertia.” It was where many of the people in this book first came across each other, where Tim Booth ran into Ivan Pawle and where, eventually, the first ever Dr Strangely Strange concert was performed.

The other island of otherness was the geographical centre of the embryonic counterculture, sometimes known as Baggotonia. In the late 18th century the Dublin aristocracy had moved southwards across the Liffey, building elegant Georgian streets in a previously unfashionable area around Baggot Street and Merrion Square. Meanwhile, the northern part of central Dublin became decrepit and was slowly transformed into one of the worst slums in Europe. There’s a line in Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments which sums up the position of people from the Northside: “Do you not get it, lads? The Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin.”

South of the Liffey, much of the Georgian new build had itself become dilapidated and ramshackle by the Sixties and the richer residents had moved on, though there were still some living links with its more illustrious past – for example, WB Yeats’ daughter Anne still lived on Upper Mount Street. Some parts of Baggotonia were hurriedly demolished by the government before anyone could intervene. The writer John Banville, who also lived on Upper Mount Street, has a convincing rationale for this in his Dublin memoir, Time Pieces: “The ultra-nationalists who ran the country then had scant regard for the delights of Georgian architecture, and indeed many of them would have seen Georgian Dublin as a despised monument to our British conquerors…” Later in the Sixties, opposition to the demolitions started to coalesce around The Dublin Housing Action Committee, inspiring at least one Dr Strangely Strange song.

The decaying houses that were left were soon bought up by landlords on the make, and the area was home both to Dublin working-class families and a mixture of artists, poets, musicians and beatnik types. Banville recalls that Ireland in this era was “a hard, mean-spirited place for anyone with artistic ambitions,” but small informal groups and cliques of like-minded individuals developed across a spectrum which ran from ‘heads’ to ‘straights.’ One of these cells was based, from 1965, in a decaying house in Lower Mount Street, inhabited by Ivan Pawle and an ever-changing supporting cast. There was little interaction and no sense of an overarching network; each group had its own preferred hangouts, routines and bars. Though John Banville is exactly the same age as Ivan and the Tims, and lived round the corner from them in the same period, they never met. Their worlds didn't overlap at all - the pubs, and even the Dublin poets they liked, are quite different.

The Mount Street house, soon nicknamed ‘The Orphanage,’ was where Dr Strangely Strange eventually lived and rehearsed together, making a fairly shambolic debut at Dublin University Folk Club in autumn 1967.

Gigging in Dublin Clubs

The Strangelies’ gigs in 1968 were largely restricted to the growing Dublin club scene. Gigs outside the capital were largely met with incomprehension or requests for some familiar material. Even in Dublin, it could be tough. One 1968 appearance was at The Embankment in Dublin, a regular gig for The Dubliners. Tim Booth: “They [the audience] were completely open-mouthed. They didn’t dislike it; they just didn’t know what was happening. There was an American tourist sitting below me. He kept telling me to get my hair cut. Sean, who ran the place, had said he wanted to fill the place with people having a good time and hearing songs they knew. Then we got up and it was totally unfamiliar. Another time we were playing in a Dublin pub and an old woman came up and put her hand over my guitar strings and said “Why don’t you play something we bloody know?” I suppose they thought we weren’t doing songs like The Holy Ground because we couldn’t, but we could if we wanted.”

There were three Dublin venues where the band played regularly and were assured of a receptive audience: The Neptune Rowing Club, Slattery’s and Sinott’s.

Because of its club status, the Neptune allowed performers and friends an extra pint or two after the gig on Friday nights. “One night,” says Tim Goulding, “a vicious fight broke out and pints of Guinness flew and tables were upturned. The wee Strangelies remained glued by fright to their stage and emulated the band on the Titanic.”

It was run by Jimmy Corrigan, says Tim Booth, “a lovely man who took great pride in the folk musicians who performed on the tiny stage. The club was held every Friday night in a green-painted corrugated iron club house on the banks of the Liffey just outside Dublin. There was a single microphone, an old cage Shure, and we performed alongside Sweeney’s Men, Mick Colbert, Johnny Moynihan, The Press Gang, Gay and Terry Woods, The Fureys, The Cotton Mill Boys and the late great Frank Harte.”

Slattery’s, in Capel Street, was a regular Sunday night gig. Tim Booth: “It was run by Mick Colbert, a beautiful guitarist and singer. Whatever limited clawhammer technique I have is down to his teaching. Our gigs there entailed loading the harmonium – wrapped in plastic to protect it from the elements – onto the roof rack of Goulding’s Renault 4, Gosport Lil, driving across town and then unloading same and manoeuvring it down a steep flight of stairs into the basement bar. The staircase had a right-angled turn and it took considerable deftness of touch to get the harmonium down without damage, either to the instrument or our backs. We also had to mule it back up the stairs, wrap it in plastic in the street and heave it back onto the roof rack post-gig. There were a couple of mics which we used for vocals, hoping the guitars would be picked up by them a bit as well, but the club was so small that acoustic instruments could be heard and the audience – all hardened drinkers and thus fans of the esoteric – gave us their total attention, as was the fashion betimes in Sixties folk clubs. We honed our act. Not really, but it was good practice for facing larger hostile audiences on the subsequent English university circuit a few months later.”

Slattery’s was the scene of a showdown about the reference in Booth’s song Donnybrook Fair to Patrick Pearse. Booth’s mention of the Pearse squint in song caused him to be threatened with physical violence, he tells us, “by a centrally-cast drunken Irish poet” named Ernie Bates who explained forcefully that he was “sensitive to Pearse’s sensitivity.”

Booth: “Occasionally Gary Moore would join us on sitar and that added a touch of credibility to our act. We would try to do the gig totally straight, but I do recall that time with Gary when the broom closet at the foot of the stairs transmogrified into a lift and we spent some time in it travelling between floors and realities…

“We would play a set, 4 or 5 songs and the chat between for about half an hour, take a break when maybe there would be other acts or guests, and then finish off the night with another 4 or 5 numbers. As it was of a Sunday, the pub closed at 10, so we were often back in the Orphanage quite early – certainly before dawn.”

There was an intriguing group of Slattery’s regulars, many of whom went on to greater things over the years. The Cana Band was a blues-based outfit;# in which Alec Finn (later in eclectic folkies De Dannan) played bouzouki; alongside Johnny Moynihan of Sweeney’s Men, he was responsible for introducing the first trichordo Greek Bouzouki into Irish music. The Cana Band took their name from a pub called the ‘Canal Inn’ – the 'l' had fallen off ‘Canal.’ 

Phil Lynott’s mates The Tara Telephone Company performed poetry and music and were, says Ivan, “a strange outfit. They – like us – were very much of the times. Peter Fallon, the brother of the rock publicist BP Fallon, read his poems whilst various muses added sound effects.” Declan Sinnott, later briefly a member of Celtic rock band Horslips, played guitar and also read his poems. Eamon Carr, later the drummer in Horslips, played bongos. Other regulars included The Press Gang, a four-piece a cappella band whose repertoire was primarily English country songs and sea shanties. They were the first Irish group of this kind.

Over their formative years, Strangelies played many gigs at Sinnott’s in South King Street. The weekly gig ‘Poetry and Music’ was run in the first-floor lounge there by poet and writer Leland Bardwell. Tim Booth: “It had a long narrow ascent, so we developed muscles humping the harmonium up and down which worked to our benefit later on tour, when we had to lift the fucker up on to Goulding’s roof rack.” The trials of touring with a harmonium are a recurrent theme in Strangelies history.

“There was no amplification at all, but as poetry was involved, the audience was raptly silent and there were some among their number who felt that the good Doctor got in the way of the Art. I think we were paid ten shillings each for these gigs, but then, a pint of stout was less than two shillings and the audiences were generous, placing pints before us as we worked, to encourage brevity.

“The gig featured various Irish poets such as Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Pearse Hutchinson, Macdara Woods and Hayden Murphy, interspersed with music and songs from the likes of Luke Kelly, Mick Colbert, Ronnie Drew, Johnny Moynihan and ourselves. There were no mics, so everything was acoustic. In my memory, the poetry far outshone our offerings and I have an image of the late John Jordan, dressed in a dinner-jacket suit and standing trembling behind a lectern as he wrestled down his astonishing poetry, and wrestled also whatever hallucinations his DTs caused him to experience, sweat on his brow, reading his work with ruined dignity. May he and the other poets and musicians – many now dead – who graced this wonderful event find contentment in their rest.     

“Leland Bardwell was a legend. Poet, novelist, scarlet woman… you name it. Her best-known book is Girl on a Bicycle. Despite living a wild life, she died only a few years back, well into her nineties. A great woman. Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin is still with us, along with her longtime partner, poet Macdara Woods. Before I moved into the Orphanage, she used to be my landlady, and after a Sinnott’s session her party would often overflow into my downstairs flat. On one late night occasion, we tried a very drunken Luke Kelly of Dubliners fame for crimes against literature and found him guilty as charged. The sentence was summary removal of his nether garments and expulsion into the street… where nobody noticed, it being three am. After his assault on the front door nearly tore it from its hinges, we readmitted him into the cosy arms of poesy.”

After a few months of pub gigs, Joe Boyd was persuaded to come over to Dublin and see the band live, eventually signing them to his Witchseason Productions (alongside Nick Drake, The Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention). A deal was struck with Island Records and in January 1969 the band followed their old friend Iain Sinclair to Dalston, where they hung out whilst recording their first album, Kip Of The Serenes.

Dr Strangely Strange - Fitting Pieces To The Jigsaw - by Adrian Whittaker is published by Ozymandias Books