The Comprehensive History of The 4 of Us
For approaching thirty years, Newry rock-pop artists The 4 of Us have been making their indelible mark on the fabric of Irish music. In that time, while other members have come and gone, the essence of the band and their sound has been brothers Brendan and Declan Murphy.
However, dyed-in-the-wool fans of the band will know that finding out details about the history of the band can prove trickier that you might expect. While column inches about the latest album Sugar Island aren’t scarce, the same is not true when it comes to the inception of the band and the early years.
I decided to put that right and recently spoke to Brendan for what transpired to be an almost three-hour long interview, and I took my chance to dig deep. So here it is; everything you’ve ever wanted to know about The 4 of Us but were too afraid to ask.
I wanted to be a singer, but everybody wants to be a singer so if you get the drums, then everyone knows you’re serious.Brendan Murphy
Ever since the ‘70s when their parents would wheel them out in front of unsuspecting guests to do a little “turn”, both Brendan and Declan knew that music would be their life. But it was Brendan who initiated the whole band idea. “I already had a basic drum kit ’cause I had started off trying to get into any band by being a drummer. I wanted to be a singer, but everybody wants to be a singer so if you get the drums, then everyone knows you’re serious.”
He was already messing about with a few bands locally, but quickly realised not only that his own little brother was fast becoming a talented guitarist, but that if they were to start their own band, he could come out from behind the drums and emerge as the singer and front-man that he really wanted to be. Brendan aspired to be in an original, cutting edge and successful band with a New Wave sensibility, not just a good pub band; in order to do that, it was clear that he’d have to take control.
The first thing to do was to earn enough money to buy some basic equipment. Enlisting the help of middle brother Paul, Brendan somehow managed to persuade their mum and dad to let them take Declan – at that stage not quite fifteen – and spend the summer busking across France.
Originally playing their own songs, the francs just weren’t forthcoming, but on switching to Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel covers, things improved. Playing singer-songwriter material but dressing like Echo & the Bunnymen, theirs was a very particular image, “And because we were brothers, we just looked like a band”. After two summers, taking the ferry to Cherbourg and busking all the way to Paris, the Murphy trio had gathered up the funds to purchase a basic garage set-up; a small PA and some second-hand mics.
What mattered most to the Murphy brothers was to do something that no-one else around them was doing. Inspired by ground-breaking artists like Talking Heads, Grace Jones and Roxy Music, they weren’t just concerned with writing great songs, they wanted the whole package; image and album artwork were as essential to that package as was the music.
The problem they faced was that once they came off the street and into the garage and started playing their instruments through amplifiers, they sounded awful! But then… a revelation! In the form of the TASCAM Portastudio; a four-track recording device which immediately opened up many more interesting options.
Moving the operation from the garage to the bedroom, they began making more sonically interesting and creative sounds which would eventually become the distinctive sound of Songs for the Tempted. The sound effects on the intro to Home is Where the Heart Is seemed so much more exciting to them than just playing their instruments through amplified equipment and was reminiscent of Roxy Music’s Street Life. They were one step closer to their goal of creating a record that transports the listener to another place.
Having established where they were trying to get to, the next step was to try to secure a record deal – a bold step for four young lads from Newry. At this point the three brothers had been joined by Stevie Mallon, who wasn’t so much a musician as a mate who happened to own a keyboard and fancied being in a band – so they just said, “come on ahead!”
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With neither the patience nor the inclination to spend months gigging their asses off in order to become a really competent live band, The 4 of Us chose another tack. MTV was becoming big news at the time, so they decided to record twelve demos in the Portastudio, film twelve videos to go with them, then traipse all over London trying to hawk their wares to all the major record labels.
They’d recorded the first two of these videos when the opportunity arose to enter it in a TV competition on The Old Grey Whistle Test, but they missed the deadline! “As usual, though I didn’t realise at the time that was going to become the story of our lives, The 4 of Us miss a deadline,” Brendan quips. Luckily though, the RTE vehicle MT-USA had a similar competition and they submitted their offering which was their video for Home is Where the Heart Is.
Filmed in the gym of their old school, on a tin-pot old camcorder, it’s got a home baked quality for sure – but the look and feel of what they were going for is evident even then. The staccato movements, the speeding up and slow-mo of the black and white footage, the obvious sense of humour, and one scene in particular where Brendan runs his fingers through his hair, there is an unmistakeable influence of David Byrne in there.
Brendan happily admits the influences at work – and their desire to be slightly artsy. “We wanted to look like Talking Heads and not The Housemartins – we looked a bit like guys that wanted to be Talking Heads and we looked a bit like four guys from Newry, but we had enough of both to be original.”
The video was selected by Dave Fanning and co. as one of ten finalists to be screened on RTE, and just weeks after it aired Brendan got a phone-call from Richard O’Donovan. “He was working in Windmill Lane at the time and he rang me up and said, ‘I love this video, I love this song, can we meet up? I’d be interested in pitching you guys to a label.’ And we said ‘great!'” That encounter was enough to get The 4 of Us a foot in the door at CBS Records where they met Thomas Black who was head of A&R at SONY Ireland.“
With the confidence of youth, the band agreed to negotiate with him, but only if the London office were interested – and they were. Remarkably, on the strength of two home-made demo songs and a two-bit video they were able to hook the attention of the legendary producer and A&R man Muff Winwood, who asked for more and so they sent him the video for Love With Christine.
Things were moving apace for the band at this stage – but that presented them with a major problem – they still weren’t great musicians. In fact, the fourth member Stevie Mallon still hadn’t learned to play that keyboard and would just rock up to appear in videos. “On the one hand”, Brendan says, “it was really smart, but on the other it was really stupid.” They had a record’s worth of songs recorded on the Portastudio, which they were going to have to learn to actually play well!
As fortune would have it, the record company sent them to Mudd Wallace’s Homestead Studios where they met Enda Walsh. At that point Enda was a young sound engineer at the beginning of his career and everyone in the band immediately loved him. While they were developing all the time as musicians, still having Enda’s skill on hand proved invaluable; “He was able to bridge the gap between what we knew and what we didn’t.” Little did they realise then that that would lead to a life-long friendship and collaboration between Enda and The 4 of Us.
Unfortunately, when the demos for Just Can’t Get Enough and One Strong Hammer were done, they felt that they just didn’t sound as cool as their own original demos had. Still CBS liked them enough to sign the band but give them time to work on getting it right. For the next year they were in and out of the studio with lots of different producers, but it just wasn’t working.
Eventually they decided that the only choice was to co-produce the record, which they did, with Mark Ferda. They really liked Ferda in particular because, as Brendan explains, “he wasn’t fazed by the fact that a) we were very confident and b) we weren’t amazing musicians.” They insisted on one thing though; that the record would be mixed by Enda Walsh, and so they returned to Homestead Studios.
By now most will know the story of Declan’s ill-fated plans to sing half of the songs on that debut record. Once they got down to the task though, Declan was struggling. “Declan had a lot to do,” Brendan explained, “because he was the most technically proficient musician”. And so once Lightning Paul was in the can, Brendan assumed the remainder of the singing responsibilities. The record worked so well because both Walsh and Ferda were brilliant musicians who could just pick up a bass or a keyboard and fill in the gaps where the band were found wanting.
Secure that their sound was distinctly ingrained in their original demos, they didn’t fear that introducing other players would dilute it. Once they took it out of the portastudio though, they found that sometimes the sound wasn’t big enough. “Enda might say, ‘that sounds a bit rinky-dink on that thing you did it on, that needs to be piano’, but we couldn’t really play piano, so Enda would say, ‘Well I’ll have a go,’” and in that way Enda and Mark would step into the breach as required, until the record was done.
Two tracks on Songs for the Tempted stand out as quite distinctly different from others, the more acoustic numbers, Mary and Washington Down. “In many ways they those were probably the two songs that we spent the least time on,” Brendan admits. In terms of production they’re the simplest and most traditional songs on the album, which at the time made Brendan feel they weren’t as interesting as some of the others.
“You know when you’re in a studio, you can sometimes get excited by the bells and whistles that are attached, particularly at that age, and it’s only when you take the bells and whistles away that you really know what you’re dealing with.” Almost three decades later though he acknowledges that that may be precisely why those two tracks have lasted much longer than many of their other songs. “We were listening to Remain in Light and early Roxy Music albums – we wanted to sound like we were coming from left of field, we didn’t want to sound like an Irish band.”
Again, most fans will know the well-worn story behind Mary, but Washington Down is a bit more elusive. Intrigued, I asked Brendan what had inspired him to write it. His aim, he told me, was to write a song which on the one hand was about a character and had a certain narrative, but on the other had some abstraction and would cause people to ask themselves who or what it was about. The name he chose because he felt that it had a certain gravitas. In the song he admits that the advice he is giving is to his younger self.
“I remember thinking, imagine I was older and what advice would I give to a younger guy. But I was really trying to give myself the advice…I didn’t wanna settle down too early and I saw other people doing that. My interests were pursuing music and pursuing a career… when you get a bit older the way you think changes.” Having seen many of his friends settle down quite young, Brendan aspired to pursue a life of music and excitement; “you know love can wait… look for danger before it’s too late.” Sage words.
Other tracks on that album came closer to that singular sound they were striving for; Drag My Bad Name Down, I Just Can’t Get Enough, Lightning Paul, were songs that sounded like they could and should have been as commercially successful as any of their counterparts in England or the US. And looking at the videos from that era, it’s also true that they looked as good as they sounded. Why they never made more impact on the UK charts remains a mystery.
And so, the record was made – but then they were going to have to learn to play the thing! By that point they’d parted ways with Stevie Mallon who was never going to cut it as a keyboard player in a live band. After much negotiation Paul moved from bass to keyboard – though reluctantly because he hadn’t liked the idea of sitting down. He was by far the most proficient keyboardist in the band though as evidenced by the ambitious keyboard parts he’d worked out for Lightning Paul.
Brendan explains, “it wasn’t a game anymore. It was like, we’re gonna be going out and facing an audience, you’re gonna have to go into the role that actually you’re best at. And while he was a proficient bass player, it wasn’t make or break, but the keyboard thing was.” That decided, they then needed a new bass player – and they still had no drummer! So right from the earliest days, before they’d done any live gigs, The 4 of Us would become 5!
“We just lucked out because, not only is he a great bass player, but he looked like us!”
Declan was studying at art college at the time and happened to know a bass player called John McCandless. On meeting him for the first time, Brendan’s immediate thought was, “we just lucked out because not only is he a great bass player, but he looked like us!” In fact, John looked like he could be Declan’s twin! More so even than his own brothers, some might say. John was in!
That just left one position to fill; Thomas Black drew up a list of drummers and Peter McKinney was on it. Again, Brendan says, they lucked out. “Not only was Peter known across Northern Ireland for being a brilliant drummer, but he was also hilarious!” He’d joke that the guys sounded nothing like their own record – so the next task was to get rehearsing to ensure that they would.
By then, both Brendan and Declan were rounding up their studies; Declan at art college, Brendan from a law degree at Queen’s. His fellow students could hardly believe it when he announced that he’d secured a record deal with CBS Records. “Most of them didn’t even know I was in a band – we’d not really played any gigs.” No-one was more shocked that Mr Murphy senior; the boys’ father Gerard Murphy seemed to think that Brendan had managed to “cod” a major corporation into parting with a substantial amount of money. Their shock stemmed from the unorthodox way that The 4 of Us had gone about things; a bit arse-about-face as it were. Now their task was to work the record which meant becoming a really good live band – which is exactly what they did.
Once they realised the power of great live performances, The 4 of Us set about marrying the two strands together for the second album; the slick image and production together with the technically great performance. Throughout their career, Brendan tells me, each album has been a reaction to the last, a kicking against what they’d done before in a bid not to repeat themselves, which he feels is what all truly interesting artists do.
Album two, Man Alive, was released in October 1992, three years after Tempted. Three years in the music business can be a long time Brendan acknowledges; “with major record companies it’s generally advantageous to move relatively fast because the staff change so frequently, and the people who signed you are displaced by other people and those people have their own interests and they may not coincide with yours.”
The record did have a lot of success though; the single She Hits Me got to number 31 in the UK charts, and the album made Q Magazine’s Top 50 Albums of the Year with such illustrious bedfellows as Neil Young’s Harvest Moon, Lou Reed’s Magic and Loss, Bob Dylan’s Good as I Been to You and Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend. Still, CBS decided that they didn’t want them to work the album on the tour circuit, but rather to ride the momentum and get back into the studio to write and record album number three.
It was at that point Brendan told me, that CBS began to perceive the band as “difficult”. “And were you difficult?”, I asked. “Looking back, I think you have to be. If you’re not in control, then who the hell is?” The band, or more particularly Brendan and Declan, were determined that their vision would be realised. Like before, they wanted to react against what they’d done in the past and, unlike some manufactured boy band, they wouldn’t be dictated to.
The problem was that CBS had the likes of Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen and George Michael on their books. They weren’t interested in selling thousands of records, they wanted to be selling millions of records. And they expected The 4 of Us to come up with the goods. To give CBS their dues, Brendan acknowledges that when after two years and a third album still wasn’t forthcoming, the label didn’t unceremoniously drop the band, they did give them a last chance; “They put a gun to our heads, they offered to move the option from April to October, let us bust our asses for six months and see if we could come up with something great.” At the time though Brendan thought that showed a lack of commitment to the band, and they determined not to let CBS force their hand.
With hindsight he believes that CBS did exactly the right thing; in truth they worked for another three years on the album that would have been Amplifier before scuppering it to start all over. At the time though, Brendan believed that artistic control was all; “and we learned the price of being in control,” he told me. “Yeah, you’re in control alright, in control to drive this vehicle you’re in right into a ditch.” So, they won and lost. Luckily the recording deal meant that money wasn’t an issue for a few years so that when they parted ways with CBS they were able to set up their own home recording studio, Future Inc. Records, and get to work on recording a really great album.
It was then, after dedicating so much time to an album that never materialised, and with the prospect of spending perhaps another couple of years at it, that it became apparent that Brendan and Declan really were the band. “Everybody else did not have enough at stake in the whole operation to last through what was going to be effectively four or five years of, “it’s still not right, it’s still not right”, you know what I mean? So basically everything fell away.” Peter, John and even brother Paul decided to do other things. Brendan knows it was the only decision that they could have made and once the dust had settled, things returned to what they had originally been – Brendan and Declan. So, they decided to make a record that sounded like them, which turned out to be Classified Personal.
The brothers consider this almost “Phase 2” of their recording career. It sounded so different from what had come before that Brendan says they could practically have changed the band’s name at that point. “I remember John McCandless saying to me that it almost sounded like a solo record”. However, they didn’t change the name because at its core, The 4 of Us had always really been the two of them and they knew that their most committed fans would “get it.” Those fans understood what they were going for with Classified Personal, “and there were enough of them to give us one more shot at it.”
Classified Personal was a very instinctive record. With no concern for being commercial or what would work on radio, they set out to make a record that they really loved. “The way I see it”, Brendan explains, “there are enough people doing a job that they don’t love, and there are less painful jobs to do than music, so if you don’t love it, there’s no point, I might as well be doing something else.” He feels it’s so important that they really love what they’re doing, today.
Making that record under their own steam though, meant that they had to learn how to run a business. It took the making of Classified Personal to learn that. “It’s one thing opening your own record company, but it’s another when you’re trying to ship records into Golden Discs in Cork or figure out how much money to spend on radio ads. There’s nothing sexy about that!” What was sexy though, was having the final say on what type of ads to do or what artwork to use. The band became a business, controlling the budget for everything. They even made a couple of videos for that album, but the problem they faced was getting those videos seen in a pre-YouTube universe.
One notable video was that for the single Change, (a track used in the American series Mind of a Married Man) which was directed by Maurice Linnane, known for his work on U2’s Zoo TV stuff. He called in a few favours and got the use of the nightclub bathrooms in Bono’s Clarence Hotel in Dublin. None of the performers in that remarkable video were actors or even paid extras. “Maurice picked some people he knew but I think he was pleasantly surprised when he saw the collection of people I turned up with.” They were a bunch of Pod nightclubbers turning up to the shoot in the same flamboyant outfits they’d been wearing the night before. “They just looked phenomenal.” That rich cast of characters, that memorable video and that gloriously catchy tune marked the start of a new era for The 4 of Us – and Brendan’s hair never looked better!
That record had enough success to let the band know that they could continue being The 4 of Us and wouldn’t have to work at anything else. “I didn’t have to go back to law, that was it, we were off to the races.” It was listed in The Top 50 Irish Albums To Hear Before You Die, by Irish Times critic Tony Clayton Lea, EMI Ireland became interested, and that’s how Off the Record came about. The 2000 compilation record contained some songs from Classified Personal, together with re-imaginings of tracks from the first two albums, which had to be re-recorded as SONY owned the original recordings.
With the first self-produced offering in the bag, there was no stopping them. As Brendan describes Classified Personal as a very “song-y” album, they wanted the next to be much more “headphone-y”. They wanted to make it weirder, more atmospheric, an album which when listened to takes you to some other place. Getting Peter and John on board for the recording of the album, and with gadgetry in place with which they could “stretch and change” sounds, Brendan felt that they achieved a much more sonically inventive record than they had before.
Declan has said in the past that Heaven and Earth is his favourite of their albums and Brendan agrees that until Sugar Island it was his too. “I think it’s the album that came closest to what we were going for right from the start… essentially to use electric guitars but create something otherworldly, to take you on a journey aurally.” They were influenced by the likes of Prince’s Parade album which Brendan cites as, “sonically in a world all of its own, all that mad orchestration and synthesisers, then it goes really minimal then it blows up again.” Listening to the monumental intro to Sunlight, it’s not difficult to see that influence.
“If we have any ego, I think it’s just to serve the song really.”
The artwork for the album was carefully considered; they found the artist and photograph before enlisting the help of Declan’s graphic artist friend Rowan “Chevy” McKevitt to design the typography. As they’d always wanted since they were first spellbound by Grace Jones’ Nightclubbing or Roxy Music’s Stranded, they were in control of the whole package; their sound, their artwork, the image of The 4 of Us that they were sending out into the world. And it was sweet.
Two years later they followed up with the album Fingerprints, another reaction against the last, and a conscious swing back towards sounding “like a band”. For Brendan the best song on that album is its simplest, just piano and a voice and a hint of strings, it’s Blue. Brendan remembers that Enda began playing these notes and it just sounded gorgeous, “like a Tony Bennett song.” I told Brendan I’d always seen Blue as their answer to Still Crazy After All These Years. “Yes, exactly, except it’s sadder”. Although people have often told Brendan that they cannot believe that there’s not a real girl from his past to inspire the song, Brendan insists that there isn’t, but he feels that it is easy to live those feelings vicariously through friends he’s seen go through it and be “glad as hell” he doesn’t have to.
A very singer-songwriter type song like Blue or Into Your Arms would be unlikely to work in a typical band with lots of egos and everyone vying to have their part heard. Brendan and Declan only have each other’s egos to worry about; “if we have any ego, I think it’s just to serve the song really.”
EMI got involved with the distribution of the records, but crucially the Murphys never again lost control or ownership of their music. That control extended to booking their own live dates but touring with a band could be difficult. “Now if you’re at the Learjet phase then there’s no problem, at that level, being in a band is probably fantastic. But if you’re essentially running a cottage industry and concerned with making enough money to make the next record, then it’s a very different scenario.” Stripping everything back to basics, they decided to get back to the portastudio and the acoustic guitars for the next album; and the result was Sugar Island.
The most personal and certainly the most narrative of their records, Sugar Island is a concept album of sorts in the sense that the songs are set against the backdrop of a childhood in the border town of Newry during the 1970s. Neither worthy nor sentimental, the record is full of memories and warmth and some of the most beautifully written songs of the band’s career. Having spent time in Nashville working with seasoned songwriters like Sharon Vaughan, Brendan was really keen to write a more personal story than he’d ever done before. He was reticent though about writing about Northern Ireland, and he was careful not to be flip about a potentially contentious subject. Writing from the perspective of a ten-year-old or a fourteen-year-old though he felt, made it easier to reference the Troubles.
Meaning in songs like Sugar Island or Going South or Birdseye View is clear enough to decipher, but every song on the album has some kind of personal message. Highwire Walker explores Brendan’s desire even as a child not to follow the path well-travelled. “I’d decided I would do everything in my power to try and make my job my passion. And so Highwire Walker is about that… the idea that there are people looking at you, wanting you to fall to make themselves feel better, saying, ‘look at that eejit! What the hell is he doing up there?’, whereas I am sort of admiring the foolhardiness of the guy.”
As young as fifteen he knew that he wanted to be involved in music or film in some way. What he knew for sure was that he never wanted to be an “employee” of any description. He hoped back then that he’d have the balls to carry it through, to pursue a career he loved. The Highwire Walker in the song represents Brendan putting himself out there, taking the risk.
Somewhere in the midst of those seven albums, Brendan also released a solo album, Walk With Me. Following his period in Nashville working with Sharon Vaughan, he came home with a glut of songs which for the first time didn’t involve Declan and he just wanted somewhere to put them rather than let them go to waste. In some ways though he was already “over” those songs by the time he got home. While he’d learned a lot from working with some of the best writers out there, equally Nashville can be a bit of a factory churning out hundreds of songs with the idea that maybe ten of them will be any good.
There were some songs with which Brendan was heavily involved in the writing of the lyrics which made him want to pursue the more personal style of writing. Others where he was less involved lyrically were much less interesting to him. So, Walk With Me was put out there on CD and for download but with no intention to work it. Instead he came home with an aim to explore writing in a less abstract way and together with Declan to tell their story, which as brothers is a shared one.
Proud of their latest album, Brendan says, “the added power of the record that we ended up making was that it wasn’t my story, it was our story. Because we were brothers, me and Declan, could sit in a room and talk about all these different things, it was a shared family story, which most bands can’t do. Sugar Island will probably go down as our most powerful record I think. Until the next one.” As luck would have it, the boys’ father had a stock of family cine footage which has tied in so perfectly with the tracks on Sugar Island.
Photos of the Newry border checkpoint and videos of the Murphy siblings holidaying in Butlin’s Mosney, (home to Europe’s coldest outdoor swimming pool), have brilliantly brought to life the memories of a generation. And the beauty of Sugar Island is also the fact that since it was written and recorded as a two-piece, the two brothers can easily take it on the road, which they do with some of the most charming and entertaining shows imaginable. The brothers can be seen up and down the country, and as far afield as Scotland and Germany and they are one of the hardest working live acts on the circuit.
Currently Brendan and Declan are back in Enda Walsh’s Amberville Studios working on new material, which keen-eyed fans will have spotted from the tempting little titbits they’ve posted on social media. With any luck that means a new album is in the works! But there’s no need to wait for that to get your fix – check out the gig schedule here and go along to see the nicest guys in the business, doing what they do best.