In 1986, a quartet from London scored their one and only hit with a clever cover version of a song associated with Elvis Presley, 'Can't Help Falling In Love'. Presley's version sold a million and was a US Top 3 hit in January, 1962, and reached Number One in the UK.
24 years later, the exceptional cover version by Lick The Tins didn't do quite as well as that, although is spent two months in the UK singles chart, but then LTT were almost completely unknown before the single was released, and returned to anonymity not long afterwards. This is their story, and this album features (almost) their entire output.
Drummer Simon Ryan was living in Kilburn, North West London, when he re-met singer/songwriter/guitarist Ronan Heenan, with whom he had played in an earlier group, The Almost Brothers. This very obscure combo released a 1980 single, 'You'll Never Make It', which remarkably made the all important Radio One playlist, but the group folded soon afterwards. Ryan also got to know a friend of Heenan's, Alison Marr - both she and Heenan came from Northern Ireland, where he had trained as a veterinary surgen, and she as a reporter before they moved to London. Ryan was a graphic designer, who worked in the art department of Stiff Records. Alison Marr also played penny whistle, and was a devotee of traditional Irish folk music, while Ronan Heenan was more influenced by rock and blues. They were intent on combining the two traditions, and example of which was their version of 'Can't Help Falling In Love' - when Simon heard Alison singing a Celtic version of the song, with Ronan on guitar and with Alison's penny whistle, he as intrigued and suggested they record it, as it sounded quite interesting. The trio made a demo of the song in a rehearsal studio, and Simon Ryan played it to colleagues at Stiff who told him that he should not consider giving up his day job, and should get on with designing sleeves.
Destiny struck when Bob Barnes, on of the precious few Gentlemen in the record industry, happened to be visiting Simon, who played him the demo. Barnes was a partner in a small independent record label, Sedition Records, who heard hit potential in the demo, and put the trio into Alaska Studios to re-record the song with producer Pat Collier (who had also produced the record by The Almost Brothers), and it was released as a single with a Ronan Heenan original, 'Bad Dreams', on the B-side. Where the Presley version of 'Can't Help Falling In Love' was long and relaxed, LTT's version was so maniac and fast that is was considerably less than three minutes long. As a result, three polkas were added to the end of the track to bring it to the desired length. London's Capital Radio told Sedition that is was OK, but could be improved if it was made less ethnic, the result being that the single was edited to omit the traditional gigs. It was a hit, and before long, Lick The Tins (the name is derived from a nickname given to an old tramp by the children from Heenan's home town) began to perform on the London pub circuit, with the addition of Aiden McCroary, another friend from Northern Ireland, initially played bass - he later moved to keyboards, and was replaced on bass by Chris Haynes. Two violin players also appeared separately with the group on their album and also alternatively accompanied the group on live gigs: firstly, Johnny 'J.T.'Taylor (now a member of The Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra) and later Barry Wickens (ex-Steve Harley).
Before the album was released, a second single was taken from it, 'Belle Of Belfast City', much to Ronan Heenan's dismay, according to Simon Ryan: "He was mortified - he said it was like recording 'Ba Ba Black Sheep'. However, years later Van Morrison & The Chieftains recorded the same song and released it as a single. The LTT version's B-side was 'Calliope House', a song by The Boys Of The Lough, but this was unsuccessful commercially. A third single, 'In The Middle Of The Night', another Heenen-composed track from the album, with another Ronan heen original, 'It Looks Like You', on the B-side and an additional track from the album, 'Road To California', added on the 12" version, similarly failed to return Lick The Tins to the singles chard, and their album, 'Blind Man On A Flying Horse', was not a major seller, although it received excellent reviews, especially in 'Folk Roots', where it was chosen as Album Of The Month.
A fourth single, an album track titled 'Ghost Story', was remixed by Pascall Gabriel, but this remains unreleased. Later, a version of 'Can't Help Falling In Love' was remixed by Stephen Hague and included on the soundtrack of a 'brat pack' movie, 'Some Kind Of Wonderful' (and appears on the soundtrack album) although copyright reasons prevent its inclusion here. However, everything else released by Lick The Tins can be heard on this anthology.
After 'In The Middle Of The Night' was released, Simon Ryan left the band, and was replaced by Martin Hughes, another Ulsterman. LTT played the college and club circuits for another year, before the band broke up. Alison Marr says she began to feel disenchanted after Simon's departure: "He had a healthy irreverence towards the music business - a sense of fun. We recorded a demo which we were all pleased with and sent it off to a major record companies in search of a deal, but when no offer was forthcoming, we were all so disappointed that we let other commitments take precedence and the the band ended".
Today, Simon Ryan again works as a freelance sleeve designer - the front of this album's sleeve is his work. Aidan McCroary has retured to the legal profession, although he is still recording music on his home studio. Alison Marr has just given birth to twin sons. Simon Ryan thinks it's sad that Ronan and Alison no longer play together: "Ronan's a very good songwriter and an exceptional musician, who was very serious - nothing he did was throwaway - as was Alison. Their blend of rock and Irish was unique, like their version of Hendrix's 'Hey Joe'". Simon is now in a new band, as yet unnamed, while Ronan is rehearsing with his younger brother with a view to playing a more blues-oriented style of music. This is a very good album.
OUT OF THE GAELIC MIST
A new breed of musicians is emerging, mixing Celtic influence with sound pop principles. Peter Curran met three of them in London.
What images spring to mind when you hear the phrase "Irish Music"? Aran sweater, brown corduroys and matching beard, perhaps? The cranked up urban cowboy rush of The Pogues? Or the sanctimonious bombast of U2? As everyone tries to sit under the umbrella, while a shower of interest in all things Irish continues throughout Britain's music industry, Lick The Tins have the genuine article up their coats.
The band's inspired cover of the old Elvis classic 'Can't Help Falling In Love' recently reached number 41 in the charts, and is still receiving regular airplay on Radio One. Their next single will be an original composition, penned by the talented Mr Ronan Heenan. I talked to them about it over the traditional tea and biscuits at home, and over the (also traditional) five pints down the pub. . .Alison Marr laughs "When we were filming the video, this woman kept rushing up to me and applying more and more rouge stuff to my face because my skin is so pale. She had drawn these really thick eyebrows on me and by the end of the day I looked like a fifty year old hooker! I've got pale skin and I don't see anything wrong with walking around looking like a vampire, I quite like it in fact!"
'I hate people thinking Irish music is all of the Foster and Allen variety.' - Alison Marr
Ten years ago she threw up a scintillating stint as a reporter on the Newtownards Chronicle, "I covered the weddings and funerals", and moved to London where she met Ronan and began busking in the Underground. Renewing an old partnership with Simon Ryan they recorded a demo-tape and hawked it to the tune of 'Close the door on your way out' from record companies. Eventually, fortune smiled and they signed with Sedition Records supremo Bon 'Ebeneezer' Barnes. The success of the single instigated a rash of television and radio appearances, so I asked Alison if she's worried about the band being classified as a one-off novelty by the public, since they have had little recognition prior to their debut single.
"What we're really scared of is being stuck with 'diddely-dee' music, which is what Ronan and I played as buskers on the Underground is what I suppose, first attracted the record company. . . We want to explore all types of music, the present format happens to be traditional Irish instruments through which we feed our own ideas".
Monday morning, and it's off to County Kilburn in search of the two boys in the band, Simon Ryan, drummer and chief smiler, and Ronan Heenan, who writes most of the songs and boasts the best cheek-bones this side of Jack Pallance. Up the narrow staircase and into a large, bright living room where a mountain of ancient books obscures the floor. I ask Ronan the hoary old question about musical influences. "I couldn't put my finger on any particular thing. I listen to all sorts of music and I suppose what I write is a combination of that and my own ideas," he declares through a mouthful of digestive biscuit. The 'Tins household stands beside a vacant edifice, once home of a score of Kerry's finest sons. "They hated English people and thought we were just as bad since we came from the North! They burst in here one night and gave us a kicking - the perfect way to wind up their Saturday night." Ronan's laugh is menacing.
The episode served as a rather crude illustration of the perennial conflict they experience. Wanting to use traditional Irish music, but loathing the image perpetuated by the media, of misty-eyed nostalgia and drunken comradeship. Alison expounds "I hate people thinking Irish music is all of the 'Foster and Allen' variety. I had this idea for the video where I appear outside this cottage wearing a shawl. It's raining, I pull the shawl around my frail wee body, y'know, really dripping sentimentality, then turn round and start demolishing the cottage with a sledge-hammer."
A favourite source of inspiration is 'O'Neill's Anthology of Irish Songs', compiled during the eighteenth century and containing hundreds of jigs and ballads which have since been swallowed up by time. It was rescued from a junk-shop where they paid next to nothing for it. Alison explains the attraction. "We steer clear of rebel songs. I love those old pagan melodies that were around hundreds of years ago," she punctuates her statement with a sardonic smile, before Christianity came along and messed things up".
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