MYLES MCDONNELL sighs a little at each passing compliment feted upon Whipping Boy’s second album, Heartworm. It’s not an impolite gesture. The former bassist and co-songwriter couldn’t be more proud at the esteem in which his band’s 1995 album continues to be held, but rather his resigned response is unconsciously borne out of years of frustration. Years of thinking, ‘what if?’
Such hypothetical yearnings loom large over Whipping Boy’s legacy. Released 25 years ago this week, Heartworm is a record beset with ‘what ifs?’ and ‘how comes?’ Regarded by many as the complete Irish rock album, the intervening years has seen its relative commercial failure offset by the continuing reverence in which it is held.
In 2013 it topped a public poll of the greatest Irish albums ever, leaving U2’s Achtung Baby, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, The Pogues’ Rum Sodomy & the Lash, and My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, in its wake. More than two decades on, the record has lost none of its raw intensity. It sounds like an album that could have been recorded today, each new listen serving only to further the fascination with what the Dublin and Kildare four-piece might have achieved had they not called it a day in 1998.
From the menacing distain and emotional intensity of We Don’t Need Nobody Else and The Honeymoon Is Over, to the inebriating nostalgia and melodic whirl of When We Were Young, how Heartworm didn’t spark a longer career for singer Fearghal McKee, guitarist Paul Page, drummer Colm Hassett and bassist O’Donnell remains, for many, unfathomable.
“I was looking at that poll and nearly every band on it went on to achieve some form of commercial success,” Paul Page tells me over an after work drink in central Dublin, “where as we stuck out like a sore thumb because we didn’t really achieve much. But for whatever reason there are still people who genuinely just love that album. It’s really heartening for us to hear.”
I meet Page and each of the other band members individually. Page, like McDonnell, his cousin, pours over the past with a sense of pride tempered by both melancholy and exhaustion. Both say they are unlikely to again speak extensively about the band. Drummer Colm Hassett is the same.
McKee, who still emits a certain uncontrollable wildness, also seems wounded by past experience but has exchanged resignation for vitriol and rage. Within minutes of meeting him he unleashes on Sony over the video concept to Heartworm’s lead single, Twinkle – “two fuckin’ cross-eyed 17-year-old twins dancing while I’m going around a fuckin’ hamster wheel,” he spits. “What deranged fucking mind came up with that fucking plot?” Now 53, he remains a character defiant.
It was out of such defiance that Heartworm was born. By early 1993 Whipping Boy were into their fifth year as a band and had two unsuccessful independent record deals behind them. London indie label Cheree Records put out the band’s first two EPs to little fanfare in 1990 and 1991 before Liquid Records, a short-lived Dublin imprint co founded by MCD’s Denis Desmond, released the band’s full-length debut, Submarine, in 1992.
That first offering bears the weight of its influences, namely contemporaries such as the Jesus & The Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth and the shoegaze scene of the early 1990s. McKee now sees the record as the sound of a band “trying to make it and fake it, and just getting to grips with itself.”
“It was a typical first album for guys who had just picked up guitars,” adds Page. “We just wanted to ape and mimic what we were hearing going on. It (the deal with Liquid) didn’t really work out for the band. It didn’t help in any way to raise the profile. Submarine got good press and all, but it went nowhere. So we were in that position where we’d been around a few years and it wasn’t really going anywhere.”
“It was very difficult time,” adds Hassett, now a Wexford-based furniture maker. “We were all living hand to mouth and, although we were getting some good support gigs with the likes of Smashing Pumpkins and Nick Cave, we would still only play Dublin once or twice every couple of months. At the time we were kind of really derided by Hot Press. We weren’t liked. So it was a tough time and that came out in the songs that became Heartworm.”
Holed up in a damp, dingy rehearsal space off Parnell Square, in a room so small they couldn’t fit all members in without leaving the door open, the band began to feel the waves of optimism around Submarine begin to dissipate. “The circle of people around the band were starting to disappear because nothing much was happening to us,” 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 initially came from a line that McKee scrawled on a piece of paper. Those five words – ‘we don’t need nobody else’ – jumped out at all four members. “It was kind of a summation of the mood in the band at the time,” adds McDonnell. “We didn’t know where we were going, but we were confident and loving what we were doing without knowing what the end result would be or whether these songs would get any kind of a release. But there was that defiance. There was a gang mentality within the band. It was very much all for one, and one for all. When you’re like that you can do great things.”
Where previously McKee’s vocals had been buried in a swirl of frequencies, We Don’t Need Nobody Else marked a shift that brought the singer’s lyrical prowess to the fore. Unflinchingly earnest verses would continue to flood out in songs such as Blinded, Personality, Tripped and Morning Rise. McDonnell and Page, the band’s chief songwriters, were also beginning to hone a sound that was becoming their own.
“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. We felt like we were doing something special. We all felt like the songs were there. The lyrics were there. Some of Feargal’s lyrics wore their heart on their sleeve and that was much appreciated by all of us. That was the way that we really felt the band should go lyrically. It felt more honest than a lot of what was happening around us in Ireland at the time.”
Page too notes this more candid and direct approach. In McKee it brought out challenging lyrics that not only dealt with life, love and regret, but also touched upon domestic violence and mental health.
“You have to be true. You have to be fuckin’ true for fuck sakes,” McKee spits when asked about the lyrics on Heartworm. “If you’re going to write things down and sing it, then they have to be true. And you were dealing with a group of honest guys in their 20s, you know what I mean. The fuckin honesty among us as a band was unreal. Pure honesty. And it was safe. It was safe to write that. To be. And we all allowed each other to be whoever we are.”
By the end of 1993 much of what would become Heartworm had been written and demoed. “We didn’t really shop the demo around,” says Page. “We were quite lazy in that way. We went in and recorded the stuff without any real inkling as to what we were going to do with the recordings. The engineer in the studio just passed it on to someone and it snowballed from there.”
Both EMI and Sony began to court the band with Kip Krones, the then MD of Sony’s Columbia imprint, making a big play for the band. “Kip was crazy about the band,” says McDonnell. “He really thought we were going to be huge and really got us. We landed a great deal, at the time, that was really based on the fact that we were so sure of ourselves as a band and how good we thought the songs were.”
Sony gave the band a firm two-album deal in May 1994. This guarantee to release two records was at odds with the usual ‘option’ contract, a second release in that instance entirely reliant on how the first performed. Despite this endorsement McKee maintains that he wanted to leave the label almost immediately.
“As soon as we signed the thing, I fuckin’ had sparks,” he says. “I knew it was the end because corporations, to my soul, are death. I felt like a young Malcolm McLaren at the time. Within six weeks of signing to Columbia we should have been signed to EMI and done a whole Sex Pistols thing. Take the money and run.”
McKee’s major label experience is at odds with his bandmates. Where he says the label “interfered all the fucking time”, the other three members disagree. “The experience with Sony was very good overall,” says Hassett. “I can’t really fault them. They let us do what we wanted.”
“They didn’t interfere in the recording of Heartworm at all, which even the producer Warne Livesey was surprised by,” adds Page. “We just got to go in and make the record that we wanted to make.”
Livesey, a British producer best known for his work with Midnight Oil and Deacon Blue, helmed the record, which was recorded in Dublin over November and December 1994. “They were ambitious,” Livesey says. “There was an edge in what we were going for. We wanted the guitars to be huge and aggressive in the big sections, but also we wanted really beautiful melodic qualities too. We wanted a full range of emotionality and dynamics.”
It would be nearly a year after recording finished, however, before Heartworm emerged. Having signed to Sony in a year when grunge was still the dominant rock genre, Heartworm finally emerged on October 23rd 1995 to find the musical landscape had shifted.
Britpop was at its peak in the UK following the media hysteria that accompanied Oasis and Blur’s infamous singles war that summer. The release of Oasis’ (What’s The Story) Morning Glory in early October only intensified the focus of the music press on the Gallagher brothers and the derivative bands on their coat tails. This 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. This was 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
“Looking back we were out of kilter with it all,” notes McDonnell. “We just fell between stools. You had all these watered down, derivative versions of other bands. Bands like Menswear who, for me, hadn’t much too say. Then you had us… and it kind of felt like we hadn’t a natural place to fit in. The only album from that era that was a little similar to Heartworm was maybe The Bends. I sometimes wonder that if Heartworm had come out before it did, could we have made a similar leap?”
With the benefit of hindsight McKee also ponders opportunities missed to release Heartworm before Britpop had exploded. “We played Jools Holland in April or May or something like that (it was June 6th 1995),” he says. “Really fucking early. And the album wasn’t released until maybe six months later. The album should have been released three weeks later and then it would have been fucking grand.”
These seemingly innocuous decisions at the time were to have huge impact on the band’s future longevity.
“We made some silly decisions and were advised, probably badly, by our management that cost us in the long run in terms of the wellbeing of Heartworm, particularly when it came to the US,” says McDonnell. “One of the biggest regrets I have is that we never played the US.”
Page concurs. “What killed us really was not getting to tour the record in the US. We went over to New York for a week to do a promo tour and 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 at the time, Gail Colson, who managed Peter Gabriel and The Pretenders, advised as to pull out of the Stabbing Westward tour. She felt that Lou Reed was too big an opportunity not to do. So we did that and that was it as far as the US label was concerned. The American company didn’t want to know after that. They literally went cold overnight. I think, more than anything, that was one of the key things that killed us as a band.”
McDonnell remembers it differently. It wasn’t a choice between one tour or the other, he says. “The US label gave us the blessing to go and do Lou and then join the Stabbing Westward tour three days after we got back. In the meantime Gail, after agreeing the tour, decided to pull it at three days notice. She said the tour was going to cost in the region of £100,000 and felt that the campaign should be media-led. But it was very bad advise and killed us in America.”
This media-led strategy carried into Europe. “We didn’t do enough touring,” Hassett says when trying to pinpoint the reasons why Heartworm failed to find an audience. “Sony’s process was to use promo tours to break a band so we were basically going around Europe doing interviews and not really playing gigs. That was a big mistake. We weren’t building a proper fan base.”
By the middle of 1996 a change of personnel at Sony’s Columbia label had seen the band’s chief supporters leave. The new management weren’t enthused about releasing a second album and Whipping Boy didn’t force the issue.
“The feedback that we got from our manager was that they didn’t really get the band, so there was no real point in being there,” says McDonnell. “So we negotiated a settlement with them, which suited them and us. At the time our manager felt that there would be any number of record companies interested in signing the band. She felt very confident that she could get us a similar deal. So it seemed at the time like a win-win for us.”
As it transpired no offers came in and Colson cut her ties with the band shortly after they left Sony in 1996. “Once we parted ways with Gail we were really then on our own again,” says McDonnell. “And that was hard because it felt like you were back to square one, the difference being that something that you had felt sure was very special had been, in terms of sales, a disaster. So all the critical acclaim really stood for very little in terms of where the band were at that point.”
The band used their severance with Sony to fund an under-appreciated third album but recording sessions were horrid. Relationships between the four members had broken down to the extent that McKee refused to record his vocals with anyone else present in the studio. By the time the self-titled album was released in 2000, Whipping Boy was over.
“The truth went after that third album because we all had different lives,” says McKee. “There was no falling out but look, when you’re in a band it’s another universe. We were all having families and kids. Life – the other life – was taking over.”
“Other things kind of fed into the break up of the band, but 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 big regret I have with Whipping Boy overall was that we probably didn’t have a fast enough turnover of material. We should have got more material out.”
The band reunited in 2005 for a run of shows and a successful 2006 tour, but despite working on some new material, things petered out. “We parted on good terms. There was no hostility or acrimony during the tour. It was nice to do that, but I like music and bands who, you know, have a vitality,” says Page. “They’re vital and of the moment. You see bands when they come out and you know that this is their time. I knew that we were past that, at that stage. Even if we had have written anything new, the chances are that people wouldn’t have been that interested, no matter how good it is.”
In 2011 Hassett and McKee went out on tour once again as Whipping Boy, but this time without McDonnell and Page. The guitarists turned down the offer on the basis of preferring to try record some new material first and took “huge offence” when Hassett and McKee decided to go out under the name without them.
“It was something that myself and Paul would never have done and which Whipping Boy would have never done. If I went out to play Heartworm on my own I’d just be taking people’s money cheaply. I felt that we were genuine to ourselves when we did the 2005 shows and played those songs again. There was no more room to do them further than that, other than just cabaret. And I never wanted us to be that. It just felt that we’d have been cheating people because I knew that I wasn’t into it. But I really felt that we could have done something new. Myself and Paul worked on some new material. It was sounding really good, but the lads decided to go out and that kind of killed it. At the time we were both very hurt.”
McDonnell has since cooled but it looks like the band has no future. An offer for a 20th anniversary show in 2015 was on the table but quickly turned down. There have been other offers in recent years – all have been politely declined.
“I don’t feel any bitterness towards Colm and Fearghal,” says Page, “but 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.”
McKee and Hassett are also unlikely to take the 2011 version on the road again. “Whipping Boy is gone now. It can’t be called back again,” says McKee, with Hassett adding “Fearghal really needs to do his own thing for a while for sure because he’s himself. He’s hard to work with, put it that way.”
All four bemoan what might have been. McDonnell released new music last year as part of the band Yelling Bones, but he and Page, the band’s core songwriters, have never released any new music together since Whipping Boy.
McKee – speaking a few years before McDonnel surfaced again with Yelling Bones – saw this as a particular loss. “They were like Simon and Garfunkel, the two lads,” he says. “I can’t understand why they never went on and made music because they were such fuckin expressive people. I can’t understand why they never made music again. The boys drip it. The minute they start playing, something comes out. I just hope they start coming back and playing for themselves.”
McDonnell also regrets is the potential lost. “That’s the real tragedy – where we might have taken it. Knowing how good Paul Page is as a guitarist. Knowing how good Colm Hasssett is as a drummer. Knowing what a force of nature that Fearghal McKee is. I genuinely I 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 fuckin’ 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.”
© Steve Cummins
These interviews were conducted in 2015 in the run up to the 20th anniversary of Heartworm. An edited version of this article ran in The Irish Times that November