Poor Blue - Mickey stands up in public again

The truth is, sometimes you're just a little too late...

 It was so long ago, I could probably fake it, and claim I was right there, at the front corner of the bar near the stage (my feet sticking to the carpet), when the spark of punk set the cobwebs on fire at Spuds in Portstewart.

But the fact is... the Punk thing kind of passed me by, as a live phenomenon anyway. Sure, Rudi and The Outcasts might have played Spuds, but by the time I was just underage enough to blag my way in out of the rain, the circus had already left town.

I was 17, stretched out on the teenage rack of boredom, acne, exams and an enormous melancholy. I took refuge in post-Punk Spuds – The Perfect Crime. International Rescue. The tasty musicianship of bands like Southbound Train, B4, Richmond Hill.

And then I heard The Mighty Shamrocks. And for that year, I caught every gig they played at Spuds. It was the only live music venue I knew. I had virtually no pocket money. But I saved what I could, and once or twice WALKED from Harpur's Hill to Portstewart - and hitched home again in the dark - to hear this band.


The Mighty Shamrocks - pic by Keith Gilmore

The Mighty Shamrocks - pic by Keith Gilmore

It's hard to define in retrospect. I remember shapes they threw - chins jutting, leather jackets, tinted glasses. Skinny ties. A Roland Jazz Chorus amp. A worn-out Telecaster. 

The guitar player sounded like The Pretenders. The rhythm section sounded like Some Girls-era Stones. The singer sounded like Bob Geldof fighting for the mic with Willie De Ville. 

I remember 'Breaking up with Harry' most of all. Like 'Reelin in the Years' being sneered by Blonde on Blonde Dylan. The charts were full of image-conscious New Romantics, preening and pouting. And here, in this seaside pub lounge, was this scruffy quartet singing oblique songs about Mexican fishermen and referencing Coronation Street and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I was hooked these were actual SONGS. Pop had become so rarefied and refined almost out of its own existence by then – we were in a high-altitude world, all mirrors and image and attitude, and the oxygen was pretty scarce. The song structures had thinned out, too - become little more than skeletons. Coat hangers. Skittery little drum patterns and nervy, processed vocals and guitars. 

The Shamrocks seemed three dimensional in comparison. I bought the single - 'Condor Woman & 'Stand Up in Public', and waited for the LP. The band went into Homestead Studios with Mudd Wallace and recorded and album for Good Vibrations. But-

The one and only single... Condor Woman.

The one and only single... Condor Woman.

The truth is, sometimes you're just a little too late...

The taxman came after the label, the project got shelved and the band went their separate ways - bassist Roe Butcher and guitarist Dougie Gough to other musical projects; frontman Mickey Stephens to academia in the United States and Paddy McNichol (until his untimely death) as manager of the fabled venue Connolly's of Leap down in Cork).

Thanks to fellow Shamrocks fan Fran McCloskey, who had a digital copy, the album, now called 'Paddy', was finally released a couple of years ago. There were a couple of celebration gigs, with Paddy's son on the drums, sparks that could have started fires, and the players separated again.

Now here comes Mickey Stephens again, sounding like he's never been gone, with a new project, Poor Blue, and an album You're Welcome. It's not the Shamrocks - and of course, it shouldn't be - what would be the point? But every now and then when he opens his throat and I hear that yelp, I'm transported. 

The swagger remains - he was always a writer blessed with a beautiful reading list and enormous confidence, and on character studies like 'Worth Your Time', he really goes for broke. Top of my list is 'Good for You Daddy', a wonderful lowlife portrait that relies on acoustic guitar and Mickey's delivery.

And the rest of it is laced with brawny Telecaster bite, big drums, Stonesy riffs and memorable turns of phrase. Check out their Facebook page to catch videos and recordings from the band. Copies of the album are available from Head Records and Sick Records in Belfast - and I'm told that copies of 'Paddy' will be available there soon, too, all these years later, You can also download the album from Amazon and you can buy copies by clicking on the CDBaby link here: http://www.cdbaby.com/Artist/PoorBlue.


 Rewind - back to shortly after where we came in. It's early 1985. I'm a teenage dad, out of work and living on an edge-of-town housing estate, miles from the housing estate I grew up in. I've become distanced from my family and friends. Word from home tells me that Spuds is closing. The Shamrocks are gone, the punks have gone. All the people I went to school with seem to have gone. The bands I wanted to form have all fallen to ruins. On some February nights, when the bedtime stories are finished and my little girl has gone to sleep, I find myself slipping into the spare room, picking up the acoustic guitar and quietly starting to work on some song ideas. For the first six months, every one of them sounds like 'Breaking up with Harry'.

The truth is, sometimes you're just a little too late.

Rock Goes to College, 1983 - The Mighty Shamrocks perform Breaking Up With Harry and Condor Woman.