Hothouse Flowers seem like a band from a different time now, over thirty years on from their monumental début album. They combined folk, rock, soul, gospel, and, in this sense, fit well into the Irish tradition of pop music. After all, this is the island that gave us both Van Morrison and The Commitments. But there was also something earthy, genuine, and pure about them. They lacked pretence, they lacked irony. And in that sense, they were the antidote to the Great Irish Rock Band, U2. The Flowers originated as a busker act on Dublin’s streets in 1985, calling themselves the Incomparable Benzini Brothers (and here they were tied into another romantic trope of Dublin/Irish culture, the street busker; see, for, example, the film Once). In a lot of ways, Ireland is a small country, and Dublin is even smaller (its population is only slightly larger than Rhode Island’s). And thus, The Incomparable Benzini Brothers were re-christened Hothouse Flowers by Maria Doyle Kennedy, the now-very-famous Irish actor. And then they got their first big break when no less a personage than Bono Vox saw them on TV and offered them a quickie deal with U2’s then-record label, Mother, which led to a 1987 single, ‘Love Don’t Work This Way.’
Mother was a conscious decision by U2 to aid up-and-coming Irish bands, and they spared no expense in cutting ‘Love Don’t Work This Way,’ which was backed with ‘Don’t Go.’ It was recorded at the legendary Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin, with Flood behind the boards. This, along with their energetic gigs in Dublin and around Ireland, as well as opening for U2 led to record labels chasing them. They eventually signed with London Records. And then they and their record label had endless, circular discussions about producers for their début album. After a gig with U2 in Dublin in late 1987, and after it, Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, two very experienced English producers/engineers (Madness, Generation X, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Teardrop Explodes, Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Morrissey, Bush) approached them, wanting to work with the Flowers. And thus, there were now producers, and so in early 1988, they headed across the Irish Sea to the Big City to cut the album.
Frontman Liam Ó Maonlai, who was one of the core songwriters as well, recalls:
We felt good in Townhouse with their selections of pianos/organs/ercussions/vibes/marimbas, etc. It was a very soulful session meeting the various people involved like the Jimmy’s (Helms/Chambers) who did some backing vocals, Luis Jardin with his big fat cigars who played percussion and Claudia Fontaine who’s voice changed the shape of the album so
wonderfully. We ate a lot of Indian food and drank a lot of beer, wine and whiskey.
There was a lot of coming and going on behind the scenes with a whole sub committee making the album, too. I remember Clive was on the phone a lot. We eventually mixed in Westside, we had the company of people in Archies bar, while Alan Winstanley did the mixing on the album which came to be called ‘People’.
And so just like that, Hothouse Flowers had their début album. And what an album it was. Centred by Ó Maonlai’s powerful voice, the Flowers created something special and beautiful. Hothouse Flowers were and are a band, not a guy with backing musicians. And, so the line-up at the time:
Liam Ó Maonlai, vocals, keyboards, guitars
Fiachna Ó Braonáin, guitar, vocals
Peter O’Toole, bass
Leo Barnes, saxophone
Jerry Fehily, drums
People was released in May 1988, on both sides of the Atlantic. The album was preceded by the single, ‘Don’t Go,’ which is a devastating track. It gave me chills the first time I heard it, it still evokes deep emotion in me, as Ó Maonlai sings of the perfect day, imploring his friends/lovers, whomever, not to leave him in such a beautiful time. This song caught me, it stunned me. It was this beautiful, sun-shiney track. The late 80s was not a period for such optimism, as with our current times, things were dark, we were pessimistic after a decade of Reagan-Thatcher-Mulroney, the staggering on of the Cold War, the realization the environment was screwed and a struggling economy. And here were these Irish hippies with this shot of optimism in the dark. Sign me up.
The album then dropped. It opens with ‘I’m Sorry,’ which begins with a basic riff, and Ó Maonlai’s voice, telling us about the song, before he gets into it:
This song tells exactly how, when I was, while I was
Sitting back on my deep pile reclining chair
Thinking about my life and all the good things that happened
Well, it just came to mind to me that
Yeah, came to mind to me that
I ain’t been treatin’ her too bad, too well, too well
No I been pushin’ her ’round and you know
There comes a time in every mans life when he’s got to
Look over his misdemeanors, misgivings, misfortunes and
Miss whatever her name is
Yeah, I’ll say you’re sorry, sorry.
I remember hearing this the first time. I was 15 years old, and a little stunned at a model of masculinity that allowed for apologies. This was not the world I grew up in, where men were men and men were assholes, cruel and oftentimes violent. It was the song that I needed to hear at the time, as I was too sensitive for the world I lived in, and needed a new way out. And as much as I revelled in pain and hurt and resentment like any teenager, especially a teenage boy, I had this streak in me, and the Flowers sought me out and dropped this little truth into my world as Ó Maonlai tells her he’s sorry as the gospel sounds build, including the chorus of women repeating ‘I’m sorry’ over and over before the song builds to a crescendo and collapses on Barnes’ saxophone.
And then we get ‘Don’t Go.’ On album, it seemed that this song was even more dramatic, more beautiful, shinier. And goddammit, why couldn’t we all have the beautiful locks of Ó Maonlai?!? This was a huge song, it remains their most successful track globally, reaching #2 in Ireland, and hitting the top 10 of the US alternative scene, amongst other top 10s in Sweden, New Zealand, and hitting #11 in the UK and #16 on the US mainstream charts. It is also worth noting that this song dates from the days when singles and album versions of songs were oftentimes different, and that’s the case here. The single version is a bit longer, it seems.
We move there into a more soulful track, ‘Forgiven,’ as it seems that the woman Ó Maonlai sang to in ‘I’m Sorry’ did, indeed, forgive him. On this track, his tenor soars over what could be construed as a power ballad, though I prefer to see it in its acoustic setting, as the Flowers were indeed mostly that. The song is structured around the bass and acoustic guitar, piano, and drums. I remains as surprised today as I was in 1988 that this would be a song I would even like, but I guess there is something to be said for how Ó Maonlai handles his vocals, as they are soulful, they are vulnerable, and they are powerful.
‘Hallelujah Jordan’ has always fascinated me, as the heartbroken man heads to his nearest watering hole and looks for the bottom of the whiskey bottle to see how far he could get to forget her. Ó Maonlai recalls how Jordan and the woman met, in a late-night bar like this one, and how they got on, talking and laughing and falling in love. This is perhaps the most U2-ish song the Flowers ever cut, as it sounds like a b-side from The Joshua Tree era (this is not a diss, U2’s b-sides in those days were as good, if not better, than the a-sides), as it’s one of the few songs in their oeuvre that features so much electric guitar, which sounds rather Edge-like here. And, of course, we’ve all been Hallelujah Jordan, we’ve all been in that bar, drunk, heartbroken over him/her/they.
Side two of of the album begins with ‘If You Go,’ an Irish farewell, a song built around a departure, a splitting of friends. As an Irish historian, I could wax poetic about how this kind of song is part of the folk culture of the island, weaving through the island’s history, as generation after generation after generation left Ireland for the UK, US, Australia, Canada, and elsewhere, looking for a better future and opportunities. And then those left behind are left to sing about their heartbreak. But that might be reading too much into a pop song, though this is a track written for someone who is about to head on their way. It is a beautiful acoustic track, centred around Ó Braonáin’s acoustic guitar and Barnes’ sax, muted somewhat into the background before we get an organ/piano riff from Ó Maonlai as he wishes his friend/lover on their way.
‘Yes I Was’ is a track that almost seemed to have anger in it, or at least something different than the rest of the album’s optimism and love, as Ó Maonlai asks over and over whether he was there when s/he needed him. And, ‘yes, I was.’ Like many songs on this album, ‘Yes I Was’ is made bigger than its core around guitar/bass/drums, in part by Barnes’ sax, but also with the chorus of Claudia Fontaine and a few other backing singers, including the band. Somehow, these vocals, which give the album its soul, along with Ó Maonlai’s voice, add a depth to the songs that is perhaps what gives People its depth and colour.
The 1987 single ‘Love Don’t Work This Way’ was re-recorded here, and comes deep on Side Two. This is perhaps the most Commitments-ish track of the album, and perhaps the entirety of the Flowers’ career. This is blue-eyed soul, and insanely catchy, as Ó Maonlai tells her that ‘love don’t work this way’ as a relationship sputters apart and into disaster. I have to admit, this has always been my least favourite track of theirs, at least during their first run from 1985-94 (they have since sort of reformed).
And then we move into the last two tracks, beginning with the slow-burner ‘Ballad of Katie,’ which tells of a big man on a black horse moving into town. The big man has seen some dark times, seen young men die, and simply seeks to find him a young woman to take home. Katie, meanwhile, she sees him and sees something in his eyes, that hurt, and she wants to know more. But then there’s Billy, who lives in the town and loves Katie. And so we have a problem:
Billy lives in the small town and he loves Katie
Oh he loves her life
He’d go over and kill the big man
Staring at Katie
But he don’t fight
NoHe says oh hold on brother
Fore you go any further
Who’s eyes do you have on
She’s mine brother I could be her man
Get your black horse brother
Get you right out of this town
Get your black horse brother
Get you right out of this townBig man leaves town on the black horse
He says goodbye.
And then we move to the album closer, ‘Feet on the Ground,’ which was perhaps an important song for the band as they appeared to be destined for stardom and the stratosphere, heralded as the next U2. Ó Maonlai had also seen his friends from grammar school hit it big in the alternative music world, Colm Ó Cloisóig and Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine. But this looked like it was there time. ‘Feet on the Ground’ hit #1 on the Irish charts, and was the most raucous song they ever recorded.
But they didn’t hit the stratosphere. They made it big, particularly in Ireland, where People remains the biggest selling début album of all time. And they certainly dented the charts in the UK, the US, and Canada. They split in 1994, though they reformed in 1998. They’ve put out more albums since 1998 than they did on their first go-round, the most recent being 2016’s Let’s Do This Thing. In essence, musically, they can do what they want and when they want to, particularly in Ireland. My wife saw them about fifteen years ago at Sandinos, a smallish venue in Derry, NI. It remains one of her favourite gigs of all-time.
In their original go-round, they followed up People in 1990 with the towering and beautiful, Home, which could’ve just as easily been the subject of this column. And then Songs From the Rain followed in 1993. They toured a lot. A lot a lot.
That summer, though, the summer of 1993, Hothouse Flowers played Another Roadside Attraction, the Tragically Hip-curated music festival that toured Canada. Me and My Main Man Mike saw the fest on Seabird Island in the middle of the Fraser River, near Agassiz, BC, which is unceded Sto:Lo Nation land. Everyone on the bill that day was mind-blowing, perhaps none more so than Midnight Oil, who were the penultimate act before The Hip, who then blew the Oils out of the water (and if you know anything about Midnight Oil’s live reputation in the 80s and 90s, you know what this means). But sometime during the late afternoon, Hothouse Flowers took the stage and, like every band before and after them, blew us away.
Anyway, they ended their set with ‘Don’t Go,’ nearly bringing down the scene, so powerful was the band nearly a decade in, and so powerful was Ó Maonlai’s voice I bought a couple of t-shirts that day, including a Hothouse Flowers one that was white and said FEEL FREE on it the front in blue lettering. I was, by this time, a committed hardcore punk, so this shirt didn’t really fit in with my aesthetic, nor that of my friends. And that’s why I loved it.
One night that summer, on a street corner in downtown Vancouver after getting off work at 2am, and playing hackey sack with my friends from work and rocking this t-shirt, this really stoned girl came up to me and said, ‘What if no one ever felt free?’ and she kissed me. And then walked away. I stood there kind of stunned, my friends laughed, and we carried on.
Matthew Barlow is a recovering academic. A Montrealer by birth, he has lived all over Canada and the United States. His natural affinities are with his hometown of Montreal, Vancouver, and his current home in rural Western Massachusetts. His first book, Griffintown: Identity & Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood (he did not come up with that subtitle) was published in June 2017 by UBC Press. He is currently working on a new book that examines childhood, memory, and trauma. His real passion, though, is music. He is also an avid fan of the Montreal Canadiens and Liverpool FC. When not screaming at the TV, he can be found running, playing with his dogs, or hiking through the hills of Western Mass.
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