“Ah but did you have the stencil?” enquired Brendan Murphy, one half of the band The 4 of Us, as we discussed the Tom Robinson Band with his brother Declan.
All of a certain age, we were comparing stories of when punk and new wave kicked in and “changed everything”. The Supertramp LPs were put to the back of the record case; a new era had begun.
According to Declan they had identical record collections. Brendan’s version of that was “he stole all mine”. This conversation is familiar to siblings all over this island. Or at least, it’s familiar to siblings with record collections in physical form, as opposed to mp3. “He wouldn’t let me play them you see” shrugged Declan as Brendan lay down his case for the prosecution. “I had a record case with a lock on it. He actually broke the lock”. Guilty as charged.
There’s a 5 year gap between them, which means that a 10 year old Declan was listening to a 15 year old Brendan’s music. As we talked, Brendan started listing the LPs that were in his collection, and on mentioning Steve Gibbons Band, Declan jumped in:
“I bought that.”
“No I had that one.”
“No you didn’t”
“I did, I had the second album, the one with the naked woman on the back”
“No that was mine”
“So you’re sayin’ I took your records”
“No, that’s not true”
“It is, you wanted to swap it for so many copies of your NME, and I thought what a crap deal that is”
“I started to listen to Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, James Taylor, The Beatles,” Brendan continued. Then punk hit. It all changed. It turned into ‘Supertramp? Who owns that?’ And you put your Clash albums to the front.”
Stories then ensued of music-based rites of passage. Brendan told of an organised trip to a QUB open day. It was a trip on which he didn’t quite make it to Queen’s. “Myself and a friend had heard of this place in Belfast called Good Vibrations, which was like this Holy Grail. So when we got off the bus, instead of going to Queens we went to Good Vibes. But we missed the bus back, and had to thumb home. We got a lift as far as Hillsborough roundabout. My friend had taken the whole punk ethos very seriously and had the whole look and attitude, which is good, but when you’re trying to thumb a lift in the dark, in the seventies … well, it took ages to get home. I’ve never told Terri Hooley that story you know.”
Declan had his own calamities. “I used to sneak out of the house all the time to go to gigs. I saw New Order in Dublin round about ’83. There was a whole big bus load of us and I told my mum and dad I was going on a school trip. But by the time I got back it was probably 2am or so. Mum was going bananas, she’d rung the school, and the headmaster and you name it. I was in the dog house for a good bit after that”.
The years rolled on and the music fanatic brothers formed The 4 of Us. Their first album, Songs for the Tempted was released in 1989, and their single “Mary” was one of the most played songs of Irish radio that year. As the album went double platinum and then won Best Album of the Year, their star ascended and fame kicked in.
“We were in our early twenties, which isn’t young for that pop thing.” Indeed Brendan felt old watching it all unfold around them. “It was great fun. CBS Records was putting it out there and waiting to see who responded. Our heroes at the time were bands like Talking Heads who were making successful records but not caught up in the pop mainstream. We felt we were left field even though we were signed to a major label.”
“But it started to deviate from our plan of being a big selling alternative artist. When 15 year old girls started to turn up at our gigs, we thought this isn’t what we want. Looking back we know now that that is part of the territory, even The Police had 15 year old girls turning up at their gigs. But at the time all we could see was that we were heading down this pop tunnel. We started to see it as either the music isn’t as edgy as we think it is, or we’re not being perceived that way. Either way I started to feel like we were losing control of what we were doing.”
Declan agreed, but added another angle. “The thing is you don’t have that luxury when it takes 3 years to do a follow up album. It took too long to make the next one, and if you don’t get an album out quick enough then other bands that are following the Zeitgeist get there before you, and your album seems behind the times.”
There were long nods of agreement between the brothers. “No one can tell you this, but when you start making music you might think you can write a brilliant record every 6 months like the Beatles, but after 5-6 years you finally realise oh! We’re slow. You have to make peace with that. Look at The Blue Nile, or Randy Newman or Tom Waits, and you can see they aren’t in a great hurry to get stuff out.”
Their next album Sugar Island is due out later in the year. “It’s named after the centre of Newry. A lot of the album is about that period we talked about before, when we were growing up. It’s not written to be nostalgic or sentimental. We wrote it like it’s happening now. To put the listener in the moment.”
The first single from the album is “Bird’s Eye View”. “It’s about being a kid growing up in Newry, standing on the bunk bed and looking out over the city during the 70s, with all the blackouts and events of the time.”
Brendan has spent some time in Nashville, collaborating with other songwriters on his solo album, and this had a strong influence on the song writing in Sugar Island. “It’s a more narrative album than we’ve ever done. In Nashville their songs add up, there’s a story to them. I’ve become more interested in getting stories out of the songs I listen to. This was written nearly the way a Gillian Welch album would be written; then we embroidered it after the event.”
Brendan’s solo album Walk With Me has Declan playing on it; the songs however have been written by Brendan in collaboration with various “Nashville guys” like Liz Rose and Tommy Lee James.
With all this talk of new albums it’s hard to believe it all started 25 years ago.
To mark this they’re bringing their 25th anniversary acoustic show to the Lyric Theatre in Belfast on 26th April. “The acoustic show is really the heart of what we do now. Even on songs like “Mary”, our first hit all those years ago, it was essentially me and Declan playing. In fact a lot of The 4 of Us songs were acoustic throughout the years.”
“We’re planning a never ending tour at this point.” Cara Gibney, GiggingNI.com