Heart of dark­ness

Fearghal McKee and Whip­ping Boy on the highs and lows of Heart­worm

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE -

Myles McDon­nell sighs at each pass­ing com­pli­ment feted upon Whip­ping Boy’s sec­ond al­bum, Heart­worm. It’s not an im­po­lite ges­ture. The former bassist couldn’t be more proud of the es­teem in which his band’s 1995 al­bum is held. His re­signed re­sponse is borne out of years of frus­tra­tion – years of think­ing, what if?

Re­leased just over 20 years ago, Heart­worm is a record be­set by what-ifs. A rel­a­tive com­mer­cial fail­ure on re­lease, it has since be­come re­garded as one of the great Ir­ish rock al­bums. From the men­ac­ing dis­dain of We Don’t Need No­body Else to the ine­bri­at­ing nos­tal­gia of When We Were Young, how Heart­worm didn’t spark a ca­reer be­yond the band’s split in 1998 re­mains, for many, in­com­pre­hen­si­ble.

Two decades on McDon­nell, gui­tarist Paul Page and drum­mer Colm Has­sett pore over the past with a sense of pride tem­pered by melan­choly. Singer Fearghal McKee is also proud but still emits a cer­tain wild­ness.

In 1993 Whip­ping Boy were into their fifth year and had two in­de­pen­dent record deals and a failed de­but al­bum, Sub­ma­rine, be­hind them. Holed up in a damp and dingy Dublin re­hearsal space, the band be­gan to feel any op­ti­mism dis­si­pate.

“The cir­cle of peo­ple around the band were start­ing to dis­ap­pear,” says Page. “We were ask­ing, ‘was it re­ally worth it?’ Then we wrote We Don’t Need No­body Else as a kind of de­fi­ant thing and that seemed to be the cat­a­lyst that trig­gered some­thing.”

The song sig­nalled a new dex­ter­ity. Where pre­vi­ously they had mim­icked con­tem­po­raries such as The Je­sus & Mary Chain, here they honed an emo­tional in­ten­sity all of their own that led to songs such as Blinded and Per­son­al­ity. McKee’s vo­cal, pre­vi­ously lost in a swirl of fre­quen­cies, was now to the fore, show­cas­ing his lyri­cal prow­ess.

“The best of ev­ery­body came out,” says McDon­nell. “It felt hon­est. It felt like we had some­thing to say and that there was some sub­stance to Fearghal’s lyrics.”

Un­real hon­esty

In McKee, this di­rect ap­proach brought out chal­leng­ing lyrics that touched upon do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and men­tal health. Al­though coy when pressed on in­di­vid­ual lines, he cred­its his band­mates for fa­cil­i­tat­ing such sin­cer­ity. “The fuckin’ hon­esty among us as a band was un­real,” he says. “Pure hon­esty. And it was safe. It was safe to write that.”

Th­ese new songs in­sti­gated a change in for­tune. Sony’s Columbia im­print gave them a two-al­bum deal in May 1994 and record­ing for Heart­worm be­gan that Novem­ber.

“As soon as we signed the thing, I fuck­ing had sparks,” says McKee, whose ex­pe­ri­ence of Sony is at odds with his band­mates. Where he says the la­bel “in­ter­fered all the fuck­ing time”, the oth­ers dis­agree. “They didn’t in­ter­fere in the record­ing of Heart­worm at all, which even the pro­ducer Warne Livesey was sur­prised by,” says Page. “We got to make the record that we wanted to make.”

It would be nearly a year af­ter record­ing fin­ished, how­ever, be­fore Heart­worm emerged. By then the mu­si­cal land­scape had shifted. The UK mu­sic press’s ob­ses­sion with the de­riv­a­tive Brit­pop move­ment – at its peak in mid/late 1995 – ef­fec­tively tor­pe­doed Heart­worm.

Al­though the al­bum en­tered the Ir­ish Top 20, it failed to make the UK Top 40 and sold 80,000 copies world­wide, cat­a­strophic as far as Sony was con­cerned. Whip­ping Boy were out of step with the pre­vail­ing wind.

Had Heart­worm been re­leased in early 1995, as was The Bends by Ra­dio­head – and not three weeks af­ter Oa­sis’ all con­quer­ing (What’s The Story) Morn­ing Glory? – it may have fared bet­ter.

“We played Jools Hol­land in April or May or some­thing like that,” McKee re­mem­bers. “Re­ally fuck­ing early. And the al­bum wasn’t re­leased un­til maybe six months later. The al­bum should have been re­leased three weeks later.”

Th­ese seem­ingly in­nocu­ous de­ci­sions grate.

“We made some silly de­ci­sions and were ad­vised, prob­a­bly badly, by our man­age­ment that cost us in the long run,” says McDon­nell. “One of the big­gest re­grets is that we never played the US.”

“That killed us re­ally,” adds Page. “We went over to New York to meet the US la­bel and they were hugely en­thu­si­as­tic. They had all th­ese plans for the band and signed us up to sup­port [Illi­nois rock act] Stab­bing West­ward on a six-week US tour.

“Then we got of­fered a sup­port tour with Lou Reed in Europe. So our man­ager Gail Col­son ad­vised us to pull out of the US tour. The Amer­i­can la­bel didn’t want to know af­ter that. They lit­er­ally went cold over- night.”

“We didn’t do enough tour­ing,” adds Has­sett. “Sony’s process was to use promo tours to break a band, so we were go­ing around Europe do­ing in­ter­views and not re­ally play­ing gigs. That was a big mis­take. We weren’t build­ing a proper fan base.”

By mid-1996 a change of man­age­ment at Columbia saw the band frozen out. They were ad­vised to leave with a set­tle­ment rather than in­sist on a sec­ond al­bum. “Our man­ager felt that there would be any num­ber of record com­pa­nies in­ter­ested in sign­ing the band,” says McDon­nell. “So it seemed, at the time, like a win-win for us.” How­ever, no of­fers came in and Col­son cut her ties shortly af­ter.

Other lives

An un­der-ap­pre­ci­ated third al­bum, Whip­ping Boy, was self-funded in 1998 but, by the time it sur­faced in 2000, the band was over. “The truth went af­ter that third al­bum be­cause we all had dif­fer­ent lives,” says McKee. “There was no fall­ing out but we were all hav­ing fam­i­lies and kids. Life – the other life – was tak­ing over.”

“Ul­ti­mately the lack of suc­cess of Heart­worm cost the band,” says McDon­nell. “It meant that we were on a time­line. The funds were go­ing down. The morale was go­ing down. And it’s hard to keep those things up when it feels like things are on the downslide.”

The band re­united for a run of shows in 2005, but things pe­tered out. “I knew our time had passed at that stage,” says Page. “Bands have a cer­tain time when they are vi­tal and our time had

We were f**king suc­cess­ful. We were a band that was never sup­posed to be heard. Whip­ping Boy is not a name for a band chas­ing suc­cess

passed. Even if we had writ­ten any­thing new, the chances are peo­ple wouldn’t have been that in­ter­ested.”

Has­sett and McKee toured again as Whip­ping Boy in 2011, this time with­out McDon­nell and Page, who felt the band should only re­turn with new ma­te­rial. They took “huge of­fence” when Has­sett and McKee car­ried on re­gard­less.

“It was some­thing that my­self and Paul would never have done,” says McDon­nell. “I felt that we were gen­uine to our- selves when we did the 2005 shows. There was no room to play those songs any fur­ther than just cabaret, and I never wanted us to be that. I felt that we could have done some­thing new. At the time, we were both very hurt.”

No re­union

That hurt has since passed but McDon­nell says the band has no fu­ture. An of­fer of a 20th an­niver­sary show last month was turned down. “I would never play again with Whip­ping Boy on the ba­sis that once any­one went out as Whip­ping Boy, with­out all four mem­bers, that would be it for me,” says Page. McKee and Has­sett sim­i­larly see the band as fin­ished. “Whip­ping Boy is gone now. It can’t be called back again,” says McKee.

Heart­worm and the band’s fi­nal epony­mous al­bum were the mark of a band that had some­thing in­her­ently spe­cial. For McDon­nell the big re­gret is about lost po­ten­tial.

“That’s the real tragedy – where we might have taken it. I gen­uinely felt that our band would have matched any­one pound for pound. I don’t think Whip­ping Boy ran its course.”

McKee, how­ever, is re­luc­tant to en­dorse any hard luck story. “We were fuck­ing suc­cess­ful. We were a band that was never sup­posed to be heard. Whip­ping Boy is not a name for a band chas­ing suc­cess. Yeats al­ways said never let a mood es­cape you. And that’s what we did with Heart­worm, we never let a mood es­cape each other.

“We cap­tured some­thing beau­ti­ful; some­thing true. That’s fuck­ing suc­cess.”

Main pho­to­graph Frank Miller

The once-fu­ture kings

Whip­ping Boy on stage at Feile 1992 and, be­low, in their

hey­day.

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