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Melody Maker | Feature | 9 January 1993 | Photos: Stephen Sweet
THE FRANK AND WALTERS
MAKING A SPLASH
“Wow! Will you look at that now? Isn’t that just crazy?”
Ashley Keating, The Frank And Walters’ ever-smiling drummer, points at the flamingos hovering above the palm trees. He wipes his brow and makes a noise like a chicken. The heat is getting to him. It’s well over 100 degrees and that certainly is crazy because we’re in the middle of winter. And we are in Purley.
We are, to be more precise, at the Water Palace in Purley, an Alton Towers of a swimming pool. The flamingos and palm trees are made of polystyrene. Not that the Franks are the least bit disappointed. Ashley and the Linehan brothers, Paul (vocals and bass) and Niall (guitar), are having a ball. They squeal with delight as they whizz down water slides and re-enact the Battle of Trafalgar while spinning in rubber rings. Their antics with the giant frog in the middle of the children’s pool are not repeatable.
Melody Maker photographer Stephen Sweet is never more than a few feet away from them. The Water Palace are charging us £100 to take a few snaps and he’s determined to get his money’s worth. Even though he says he feels a bit odd working in swimming trunks and his cameras are getting covered in slime.
“Looks like we’ve contaminated the water,” grins Paul.
“I’m not surprised,” says Niall. “I haven’t been as clean as this for at least six months.”
“I think I’ve done myself an injury,” says Ashley, rubbing his neck. “I think I must have broken it. But don’t worry, it’ll be fine in a little while. I’ve had broken necks before.”
The Frank And Walters are not supposed to be in Purley today. They’re supposed to be several hundred miles away, on the last leg of a lengthy European tour supporting The B-52s. But the final half a dozen gigs have been cancelled after Kate Pierson’s father became seriously ill back in the States.
The Franks don’t really mind coming home a week earlier than they’d expected. They say they notched up over 100 gigs in 1992 and they don’t like performing more than three shows in a row. They’re incredibly relaxed about the fact that they played to upwards of 10,000 people a night in Europe, even though just 18 months ago, when they first transferred operations from Cork to London, their audiences often failed to reach double figures.
They reckon the best thing about The B-52s tour was they had lots of days off.
Ashley: “Rome was terrific. It was nearly as hot as it is in here. We were walking around in T-shirts.”
Niall: “We went to the Vatican. We saw the Pope and asked him if we could do a gig in St Peter’s Square. He said he thought it was a great idea but, unfortunately, there’s a decree dating back 2,000 years forbidding rock bands to play there.”
Paul: “The gigs themselves were odd, weren’t they? The crowds were quite old, quite conservative. Most of them had just come to hear ‘Rock Lobster’. Especially in Germany. They got upset when the younger folk down the front started jumping around to us. They actually tried to stop them.”
Ashley: “At least The B-52s were nice to us, like.”
Niall: “That tour manager fella wasn’t.”
Ashley: “He’d been a pilot in the Vietnam War. He was a bit jumpy. He couldn’t take a joke. He didn’t like it when we dressed up in black pyjamas and started digging lots of little tunnels under the stage as soon as we arrived at a venue. He went totally mad when I held a knife to his throat. We couldn’t understand what the fuck was up with him.”
You have to be able to take a joke with the Franks. The three of them are constantly lying, constantly exaggerating, constantly making wisecracks, constantly taking the piss out of each other and anyone else who happens to be around. They’re never nasty, mind. They’re always perfectly charming.
Sometimes the Franks get a bit over-excited. Then they start talking faster than your ears can handle. Then their Irish accents are totally incomprehensible. They could be saying anything.
Sometimes the Franks try too hard. Sometimes you wish they’d give it a rest. Just for a minute.
We’re sitting by the pool, soaking wet and talking about “After All”, The Frank And Walters’ new single. The song appeared on their Edwyn Collins-produced “Trains, Boats And Planes” LP but has been re-recorded with Ian Broudie at the controls. The band wanted to work with Broudie to hear his stories about Echo And The Bunnymen and the Teardrop Explodes.
Broudie knows a few stories about the Franks now. He will always remember Paul as the berk who flooded the studio after leaving the bath running in the upstairs living quarters while he was on the phone. It didn’t take long for the water to start seeping downstairs, but because Paul also left the door of the lift open and there were no stairs in the building, he couldn’t be contacted until he’d finished chatting.
On a happier note, “After All” is the band’s first love song.
Paul: “We never wanted to write a love song but, at the end of the day, we just couldn’t get around it. We tried all sorts of ideas, but it was the only subject that seemed to work with this music. It’s about realising what you have in life and not taking those things are granted. It’s easily done. Especially with something like love.”
This is perhaps not surprising from a man who has recently started living with his girlfriend. Niall and Ashley, on the other hand, reckon they can’t afford girlfriends at the moment. Not that this stops them from appreciating the lyrics of the single.
Ashley: “‘After All’ isn’t just a boy-meets-girl song. We’re talking about all different kinds of love. I mean, when was the last time anyone stopped and thought, ‘God, I love my family’? You give them a quick phone call to find out how they’re going on, but it’s extremely rare that you take a step back and think about what they mean to you.”
Ashley is probably right. As is Niall when he points out that, however important the message, the single is essentially designed as a three-minute pop song. It’s a conscious attempt to better the band’s last release, “This Is Not A Song”, which narrowly missed out on the Top 40. “After All” has been picking up lots of daytime radio play and the day after this interview the Franks are taking part in the Radio One Roadshow. They say they’ll be miming live on the radio. They’re having terrible trouble getting their heads round the concept.
Paul: “I’m just happy that it’s going down so well. I’ve yet to meet a person who dislikes it. Unless they’re all lying.”
Ashley: “I was actually lying when I said I liked it. I don’t like any of our songs. I’ve had enough, Paul. I wanna leave the band. Especially after you spat at me on the water slide.”
Paul: “What are you talking about? You spat at me first.”
Ashley: “That doesn’t matter. I was only joking. You weren’t joking. Yours was a big, fat greener.”
“After All” is available in all the usual formats, including a double CD featuring the Franks’ wild versions of John Paul Young’s “Love Is In The Air”, The Monkees’ “I’m A Believer” and Tone Loc’s “Funky Cold Medina”, three songs they regularly end their gigs with. There’s also a live version of “Michael”, the lead track of the band’s long-deleted debut single, which was selected for inclusion on the strength of a fan club poll.
Niall: “We’re very close to our fans. That’s why we sell our T-shirts for six quid instead of 10 or 12 like other bands.”
Ashley: “We don’t have much choice anyway. We have the worst T-shirts in history. Have you seen our latest one? It’s minty green. It’s disgusting. The only people who might like it are former members of the Romanian secret service.”
Er, let’s quickly turn to “The Turquoise Garden” and “The Day Before The World Ended”, two new tracks which appear on every format of the single. The latter is a remarkably dark vision.
Ashley: “It was one of the first songs we wrote when we moved to London. It was basically a reaction against the huge amount of advertising around – all these posters and placards telling you what to do. We felt bombarded. You don’t get all that many adverts on the streets of Cork, so when you do see something you read every word. Our eyes were sore for the first few weeks we were in London.”
Niall: “The other thing that disturbed us was the number of people begging and sleeping rough. It still shocks me now. When I was waiting for the tube last night I saw this poor fella in nothing but rags. The sides of his tatty old shoes were moulded into his feet. What got me was that I was the only person who seemed to notice him. Everyone else pretended he wasn’t there.”
Paul: “Why are people like that? Why don’t they care? Every fucking day it’s getting worse and worse. I get terribly upset when I hear about things like that and things like little girls being forced to work as hookers. In fucking London, for fuck’s sake. It really makes me fucking angry.”
Paul suddenly wallops the table with his fist and sends of the Water Palace’s red plastic teapots flying. His eyes are ablaze. He really is fucking angry.
“People have the wrong idea about The Frank And Walters,” he continues. “It pisses me off when I hear us described as naive or as ‘the happy Franks’. I mean, I get fucking depressed. That’s why I make music. It cheers me up, brings me out of it. People just don’t listen. Take a song like ‘Happy Busman’. It’s not about a silly old busman, it’s about how much a smile is worth in this fucking day and age.”
Niall: “Cynical people don’t get that. It’s sad. They’re the people we have to try to get through to. They’re the people who are suffering the most.”
Paul: “We’re like a punk band, you know. Every song we’ve ever written has in some way expressed our hatred for this society and the way it’s run. The difference is that we still love life, we still love people. We still have faith in mankind. We’re romantic and optimistic punks.”
So what makes The Frank And Walters such incurable romantics? How come they manage to stay optimistic? Do they know something the rest of the world doesn’t?
Paul: “It’s to do with upbringing. Our families back home in Cork aren’t exactly rich. I can remember many a time when I simply didn’t have enough money to buy a Mars bar. But when you come from a background like that, you quickly learn to look on the positive side of life. You learn to really enjoy the one night a week that you can afford to go out. You have to. You must. If you don’t, you’re fucked.”
Ashley: “Something like 28 per cent of the workforce of Cork are unemployed. It’s the highest unemployment in Europe.”
Niall: “People say London is in recession but it seems like a boom time to us. Cork has been in recession for 200 years.”
Paul: “But it’s living proof of that old ‘money can’t buy you happiness’ cliche. That’s the sad thing about kids today. Most of them have far too much money. They have Nintendo games and fancy running shoes that cost £85. We never had any stuff like that. All we had were imaginations.”
Blimey, Paul. You sound like Clive Dunn.
“Bollocks! It’s true!”
Niall: “We used to imagine we had a Nintendo game, didn’t we? It was just a lump of wood really. The greatest thing was when we’d put a cardboard box in the corner of the room and everyone would sit around watching it for hours. Ashley used to come to our house because his family couldn’t afford a cardboard box.”
The Franks are laughing heartily. Any second now, one of them is sure to start doing Monty Python’s “When I were a lad, I lived in’t shoebox in’t middle o’ road” sketch.
“When I were a lad…”
“But we honestly used to make our own bikes out of old wheels and bits of steel,” continues Niall. “We’d ride them into the city on Saturdays, downhill all the way. When it was time to go home, you didn’t like having to push the bike back up the hill so you’d tip it in the river in the middle of the city and make another one the next day. When the tide was out, you could see hundreds of these homemade bikes in the river.”
Paul: “We made little sailing rafts, too. I was thinking about that when we were floating on the rubber rings earlier.”
Niall: “The thing is that all the kids with Nintendo games are gonna grow up with the same picture in their heads. Think about it – a whole generation whose experiences are exactly the same. There won’t be any individuals. The world will be full of people wandering around pissed off that they’re not Sonic the Hedgehog. It’s frightening.”
Think about it. Niall’s right about it being scary. It’s almost certainly not so far from the truth, either.
That’s the thing about The Frank And Walters. Sometimes, when you start looking beyond their jokes and their jibes, they make a lot of sense. There’s a unique method in their madness.
Forget that Nintendo you were given for Christmas. The Franks are far more beneficial. They say that their sole intention is to make people happy. Perhaps it’s just as well they’ve no intention of giving it a rest. Not for a minute.
After all, how much is a smile worth in this day and age?