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Michael O’Shea — the making of…

by Paul McDermott

This is a series of articles about the production of my latest radio documentary “No Journeys End — the story of Michael O’Shea”.

Update (August 2019) — the finished documentary is below:

No Journeys End — the story of Michael O’Shea. Produced by Paul McDermott

Introduction

I’m currently in production on my next radio documentary. Its subject is the Irish musician Michael O’Shea and provided everything goes according to plan it will be broadcast on RTÉ Lyric FM.

Part One — Michael O’Shea — the making of…

Every documentary begins with a spark. The idea to produce a documentary about O’Shea began when I was in the middle of producing my last music documentary.

Michael O’Shea

When I interviewed Sean O’Hagan and Cathal Coughlan for “Iron Fist in Velvet Glove — the story of Microdisney” we chatted at length about the period in 1982–83 when a two-piece Microdisney started playing gigs in Dublin aided and abetted by Dave Clifford from Vox magazine. Cathal and Sean mentioned lots of different artists from the period that they played with:

Sean O’Hagan: When Microdisney was effectively Cathal and myself and our project had moved on from being this post-punk band to a strange Art project. Dave helped us contextualise that, we started to perform at the Project Arts Centre, we started to play with people like Michael O’Shea and Roger Doyle.

Cathal Coughlan: You had people like Roger Doyle, The Virgin Prunes, Michael O’Shea, a lot of people doing performance: Nigel Rolfe; and the spin offs from the Prunes; Daniel Figgis and Princess Tinymeat. I knew that Daniel had done a lot of that tape stuff in the Prunes, that was what we liked most about them really. Giordaí was working with Stano shortly after he stopped working with us.

I was familiar with all of these artists but Michael O’Shea’s name drew a blank. When I asked Sean about Michael he smiled and said, “Oh you have to hear Michael O’Shea.” We talked for a few minutes about O’Shea and Sean told me enough to pique my interest. I wanted to know more, that was it, the search was on.

YouTube threw up a track called ‘No Journeys End’. It was over 15 minutes of what I think sounded like a hammered dulcimer. It was hypnotic, repetitive and I was truly transfixed. O’Shea’s music sounds completely otherworldly — it fuses sounds of the Middle East and South Asia but also is redolent of Irish traditional music.

The video has an image of the cover of Michael O’Shea’s album, on it a man is photographed in black and white playing a stringed instrument on his lap. He’s sitting on a box and there’s a small rug at his feet. He’s smartly dressed, wearing a three piece suit and tie, he has a trilby hat on and he’s looking down at his instrument so you see the top of his hat but not his face. There’s something really mysterious about the photograph — I think it’s because O’Shea’s face is obscured.

A cursory search online threw up a couple of blog posts and mentions of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, Ravi Shankar, the Royal Festival Hall, Don Cherry, Alice Coltrane, Wire, The The and even Rick Wakeman. Who the hell was this guy? My next port of call was Discogs and I saw that Michael O’Shea released one eponymous album on the Dome label in 1982 — the album photographed in the YouTube video. This was my starting point.

I knew of Dome — any fans of Wire will have heard of the Dome side project — it was a label set up by Graham Lewis and Bruce Gilbert of Wire in the early 80s. Using the moniker Dome, Lewis and Gilbert released three albums of experimental music. These are great records — non-traditional rock song structures that often utilise found sounds.

Dome (DOME1 — Dome Records, 1980), Dome 2 (DOME2 — Dome Records, 1980) and Dome 3 (DOME3 — Dome Records, 1981). Images from Discogs.

Dome Records was the imprint the duo established to release these albums. Apart from their own Dome releases the label also released the brilliant Alone on Penguin Island an album by Desmond Simmons*, a 7" single ‘Drop’ by AC. Marias AC.** and Michael O’Shea’s album.

Desmond Simmons — Alone On Penguin Island (DOM 33.1 — Dome Records, 1981) and AC Marias AC — Drop 7" (DOM 451 — Dome Records, 1981). Images from Discogs.

*Desmond Simmons played bass and guitar on a number of Colin Newman (Wire) records in the early 80s

**AC. Marias AC. was the name under which Wire collaborator Angela Conway released a number of records during the 1980s

There are a couple of copies of Michael O’Shea’s album listed on Discogs. It’s an expensive LP — prices often start around £100. There is a CD compilation that was released in 2001 on WMO (Wire Mail Order) and that also fetches large sums. The LP and CD were going to be impossible to find in the wild so I added them to my wantist. I searched online and saw that Capital City Records, a record shop in Baton Rouge, Louisiana had listed the LP for sale on its Facebook page, describing the record as, “Super rare avant-garde & experimental electronica from 1982 on original Dome Records!” I contacted the shop but I was a few days late and it had been snapped up. I missed another copy that turned up for sale in a Japanese record shop. My search continued.

The only other mention of Michael O’Shea on Discogs is that he had contributed to Content To Write In I Dine Weathercraft the debut album by Stano. I was familiar with this LP. Stano’s album was released in 1983 and is highly regarded, it’s an experimental, minimal, electronic album. It’s also incredibly rare and goes for stupid money online.

Stano — Content To Write In I Dine Weathercraft (DTLP 025 — Scoff Records, 1983)

I contacted Stano and we met for a chat which turned into a longer interview, some of which was used in my Microdisney Oral History.

Stano kindly lent me his CD copy of Michael O’Shea’s album. The reissue contains the aforementioned 15 minute opus ‘No Journeys End’ as well as the other four tracks that made up the original 1982 Dome album and a couple of other extras including the backing tracks to the Stano songs that O’Shea had contributed to. Hearing the full album was a complete revelation. That was it I had to dig deeper.

The WMO CD reissue has really detailed liner notes with biographical details about O’Shea and interviews with his family. It also contained the following line: “WMO is indebted to John Byrne (our man in Ireland) without whose individual help… ‘Gabh raibh maith agat’.” I couldn’t believe it — here I was searching for any morsel of information about O’Shea and it turned out a friend from Cork had been involved with the reissue of O’Shea’s music back in 2001.

John Byrne, getting his hands dirty on a recent record dig. Photo by Paul McD.

I’ve known John for years, he’s a crate digger, a music historian, a music archaeologist even. When I produced a documentary years ago about Cork post-punk hero Finbarr Donnelly (Get That Monster Off the Stage), John helped my research by providing me with photocopies of loads of old newspaper and music press articles. He even made MiniDisc (remember them!) compilations of Cork bands that were relevant to the project.

John was one of the compilers of Quare Groove Vol. 1 (2x12", All City Records, ACQG12x1x2), a compilation of late 70s — early 80s rare groove tunes. Indeed we had a great chat about the Quare Groove comp when himself and co-compiler Jeremy Murphy came on my Dublin City FM radio show, Songs to Learn and Sing back in January 2018.

I met up with John and we had a long chat about Michael O’Shea, he helped with adding a few more pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, now things were really rolling.

To be continued…

Part 2— Alto Studios — Robert Emmet House (is here)

Part 3 — Danny McCarthy and the Vox Cabaret (is here)

Part 4 — The Hammered Dulcimer in Ireland (is here)

© Paul McDermott 2018, All Rights Reserved

Note: Allchival (All City Records) have reissued both Michael O’Shea’s LP and Stano’s debut.

© Paul McDermott 2018, All Rights Reserved

Further Listening

No Journeys End — the story of Michael O’Shea. Produced by Paul McDermott
Get That Monster Off the Stage — the story of Finbarr Donnelly and his bands Nun Attax, Five Go Down to the Sea? and Beethoven. Produced by Paul McDermott.
Lights! Camel! Action! — the story of Stump. Produced by Paul McDermott for UCC 98.3FM.
Iron Fist in Velvet Glove — the story of Microdisney, produced by Paul McDermott.

© Paul McDermott 2018, All Rights Reserved

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Paul McDermott

Paul McDermott

educator — broadcaster — documentary producer — writer