What was life really like for the bands and singers who packed the ballrooms of Ireland? All glamour and glitter? Or all illusion and unreality?
In 1978 to find out I locked up my typewriter, and joined up as a “roadie” (or a ‘horse’, as one bandsman called me) to find out how one band, the Kenny Ryder Superband, lived on the road.
It was a romance that was to last two years, and I became P.R.O. of the band.
My brother, Seanie Ryan, who had played with groups such as Pyramid, was the drummer and comedian, and did a little song-writing too. Seanie had played with Tweed.
“It’s all unreality,”declared Kenny Ryder, on the first night we were all together (all nine of us) in a Ford Transit wagon, as we left Thurles at 3:45p.m. for the Boyne Valley Hotel, Drogheda.
Said Kenny: “This is a short gig up the road; Castletownbere or Donegal would find us not talking at all in the wagon.”
I was to notice often, subsequently, that the mere mention of Donegal or Castletownbere, a long way from Tipperary, in the heart of the Midlands, was to invite hostile looks or an expletive or two from the band!
The lads played cards until it became dark, and there was the usual good-natured banter about girls, soccer, other bands.
Bands had a remarkable bush telegraph system going for them; they seemed to know what every head (experienced bandsman) was doing from day to day.
“Yeah, we are all going for Big Apple,” said one band member. Big Apple is the term bands use for number one status, which once could bring a top band up to £2,000 per night. But Kenny had just formed his own pop band (when I was an unpaid assistant roadie, PRO hauler, etc ) , and Big Apple was a long way off.
I was first band PRO in Ireland. Today, Kenny is still popular. (He will be on stage in Premier Ballroom, Thurles, on June 17 when Paschal Brennan and his six piece band will also perform a Tribute to Joe Dolan.)
Kenny had been with Tweed, a band that was to figure in the National Song Contest, and the ”Late Late Show” and, on the strength of that name, he was able to get the bookings for a new band.
He made a number of recordings, and one, in my time with the band, went to number 29 in the International Top 30. They had not the money at the time to push it with more promotion.
A band lives in a twilight type of world. It is not the coming home at dawn, the travelling for a third of the day sometimes (“I have lived one- third of my life in a band wagon,” said Kenny) but the quest for that indefinable something to do with the restlessness in the soul of man, and, on becoming aware of this in an acute way, there is the need to assert a body, to hurl defiance at the gods.
Oh, sure, bands liked the money and wanted to get into the big time, but any “head” I ever knew had the restlessness in him that even his most intimate conversations did not define.
The bandsmen were the seekers in a strange land, the men and women of the austere night, who came alive for two hours on a stage, and then , like Dracula, went back into their lair (wagon) just before dawn.
There was many the husband who saw his children going out to school in the mornings, and he is just too weary to even say good luck to them.
The business has always been very competitive, and bands were really at war with one another, I gathered. Only a few ever made it to the top. It was always desirable that a band would have a Dublin management with all the contacts. Contacts, I often felt, seemed to be even more important than talent. And sure, isn’t that true of every walk of life ?
“You will get a lot of lies in showbusiness,” declared Kenny once.
But there are some nice people in the business. On one occasion when the Kenny Ryder band had a wagon breakdown near Urlingford (15 miles from Thurles) a top band who commanded the respect of all heads, pulled in and gave a lift to the entire band to Thurles, the base of the Ryder Band.
And talking about band- wagons, it was customary to meet other bands at all hours of the day and night on the road. We always seemed to be waving to Maurice Mulcahy band.
I have never known a bandsman whom I could imagine behind a desk, doing a 9 to 5 job. I could imagine them dying at the desk , though.
And that is a tragedy in itself. For any “head” will tell you that the lifespan of a bandsman, like a professional footballer, is only about ten years.
When one considers the show-biz longevity of Brendan Bowyer and Dickie Rock among others, it is truly remarkable from every vantage point - luck, talent, experience, management, physical and mental strength - that they have survived for so long.
I have related that bands are travelling people and, indeed, my brother, Seanie, the drummer of the family, who, in his early teens practised by drumming on jam jars and tin cans, is still travelling all these years later, but this time from one American State to another from his new home in Texas.
If there is one thing a “head” thinks about even more than Big Apple and sensational success, it is probably what the meal is like in the hall the band is playing on the night of the gig.
God bless counties like Cork, Donegal, Kerry, Roscommon and a few others, but they always had a decent meal for us. But there was at least one which was making a great profit, and which would begrudge you a cup of tea.
I was amazed at the high cost of putting the show on the road. The expenses: light- show, P.A system, petrol, meals, wages, publicity, recording expenses, rehearsal rooms, driver, and roadie, just for starters.
Kerry, Cork and the West of Ireland were great for the bands in those days, and particularly the Premier Hall, in Thurles, under the management of the late Sean Fitzgibbon, a man who was very decent indeed to the men of music and to this Pressman.
That was where the openings were, though Dublin was good for publicity . But the big money was in lucrative dates down the country.
And you would see all the showband stars down country.
Now let me dispel some myths about bands.
A band’s life can be glamorous, sure. But the truth is that most musicians had one thought at the end of the show - to get home for a well-earned rest before heading off to the next gig.
In our years travelling with the six-piece Kenny Ryder Superband, which had a great brass section, the brother and I and various other musicians, were snow-bound in Wicklow; watched the soccer World Cup in God knows how many towns around Ireland.
And I really did see Ireland. We made many friends – punters and promoters - and, indeed, other bands. And we saw life from the twilight zone.
And, now and again I have to admit, as I do my journalistic stint, a strange gnawing, restless feeling comes over me, and the itch to get into the bandwagon again.
And I wonder how roadies today are mixing the sound in some far-off town in the hills of Donegal or in the vicinity of the Dingle Peninsula… And I wonder will they get a crowd tonight, a long way from Tipperary and the Watery Mall.